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Sky-High Ginseng Prices Boost Illegal Harvest in Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park


Ginseng in Korean store window. Photo by []Peter Garnhum[/url] via Flickr.

With dried ginseng roots fetching $900-$1,000 a pound now, illegal harvesting has increased in Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is a serious federal crime. Ginseng thieves who are caught and convicted get hefty fines and jail time.

Ginseng is a fleshy-rooted plant grows in cooler-climate zones. Practitioners of traditional medicine have long valued ginseng root for its purported stress-reducing and strength-giving or rejuvenating properties. Traditional Chinese and Native American medicinal uses have also included libido enhancement and treatment of erectile dysfunction (ED).

The forked shape of a ginseng root resembles a man’s legs. Historically, the best prices have been paid for roots that came closest to meeting this ideal human-like configuration. Individual roots can bring amazing prices. In the late 1970s a record-setting ginseng root sold for $64,000, which is well over $200,000 in today’s money.

Though shape still means a lot to some who use ginseng in traditional medicine, most who use ginseng today use processed forms of the root.

By 2000, U.S. ginseng exports had reached about $44 million a year. The prime market for ginseng is Asia. North American suppliers have been shipping ginseng there since the early 1700s.

The value of ginseng has increased dramatically with the skyrocketing popularity of herbal supplements, which now account for about $60 billion in world trade. Gatherers recently have been getting $900 to $1,000 a pound for the dried root, which is roughly $4 a root.

There are places in Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky National Park where ginseng can grow quite well, though not profusely. Unfortunately, the plant is now rare in both parks. Ginseng thieves have repeatedly raided the parks, and with sorry consequences. Most ginseng patches have been thoroughly stripped. The few remaining ones will suffer a similar fate unless they are very carefully protected.

Rangers are fighting back. Surveillance of ginseng patches and suspected ginseng thieves has led to a number of arrests. Various other tactics are also employed. Applying permanent dye to growing ginseng roots, for example, ruins their market value without otherwise harming them. Another tactic, implanting microchips in the growing roots, provides a mean to trace their whereabouts if they are illegally removed.

Since ginseng thieves can be quite clever and adaptable, it remains to be seen whether these and related tactics will suffice to protect the parks’ dwindling ginseng stocks.

Meting out harsh sentences to convicted ginseng poachers is a key element of the struggle to protect the remaining ginseng on federal lands. The gathering of ginseng on federal land is a serious federal crime.

There is a strong precedent for dealing harshly with ginseng poachers on the federal lands. One ginseng poacher nabbed in Great Smoky in 1995 was convicted and sentenced to a six-month prison term.

As this excerpt from a recent NPS Morning Report indicates, recent convictions in ginseng cases have yielded similarly strict sentences.

On Sunday, August 24th, ranger Joe Darling found a vehicle parked off the side of the parkway in an area [of Blue Ridge Parkway] that has no trails but is known for illegal harvest of ginseng. When Darling entered the woods, he discovered signs of recent digging and eventually contacted Sage Adamson of Asheville, North Carolina. Upon investigation, Adamson was found to have 34 freshly dug ginseng roots in his possession and admitted to digging them up on park property. On Friday, August 29th, Adamson appeared before a federal magistrate and pled guilty to digging and removing ginseng. He received 18 days in jail, was ordered to pay $1,000 in fines, and banned from the parkway and adjacent federal or US Forest Service lands for two years. Adamson further admitted to previously removing ginseng from other locations along the parkway and adjacent USFS areas and subsequently surrendered 481 additional roots, which when dried renders about two pounds of ginseng.

Cases now under investigation will lead to additional convictions. We hope it’s not too late to save the remaining ginseng in the national parks.


I was surprised just a few years ago to discover Extension Agent literature & programs, to encourage Pacific Northwest landowners to consider the ginseng industry. This area differs from the usual range of the species, but evidently trials & trail-blazers have shown it practical. We have a standardized buyer-network, and a number of large-scale ginseng-farm operations. The hope is plainly that more small operators will take it up, since their conditions are more likely to yield the more-exotic & unique roots that are always sought-after. Big farms produce a very uniform product.

So ... what to do about illegal digging in Smokey Mountains Park? If harsh penalties protected the plants, then the answer would be fairly simple. Evidently, though, for some the temptation exceeds their fear of getting caught. If penalties worked there should be large plants growing in those places that favor ginseng. The lack of abundant or large plants probably indicates that more-skillful illegal diggers are continuing their activities. (For example, I recognize instantly that parking a car where it will attract the notice & arouse the suspicions of a ranger is not the savviest way to go about doing something illegal in the Park...)

A serious potential consideration in erecting a largely unenforceable and ultimately ineffective penalty-system is the potential for a Prohibition-like outcome. It could foster a network of criminalized buyers who overlook that certain suppliers of roots are coming in with a product of a quality that others cannot obtain (because it now exists only in the Park). It could help inure reasonably law-abiding people to the risks & stress, and help teach them the special skills of illicit & surreptitious picking, etc. Both of these could then lead to a proliferation of other illegal activities in the woods.

Sez your buyer, Oil-Can Suzie:

"Sure is an awful lot of black bears in the Smokies these days, ya know. Did you hear what dried gall bladders & paws are fetching now? Don't get caught of course ... but it's a lot more lucrative than these few scrawny 'sang roots you got here. Give it a thought."

This was basically the undoing of Prohibition - it provided fertile ground & cover for a general proliferation of outlawry.

horse pucky!!!i hunt ginseng i live in towsend i have just recently taken up looking for it ive never been in the park and have harvested about 2 lbs in the last 2 weeks.. all no where near the park!mostly in the town limits!!!to say it doesnt exist anywhere else is ludicris!you need to go farher into the moutains or something if its this abundent here some one is wrong about its status in the park,,,

Anonymous (Sept 14),

Easy there, now ... I didn't say ginseng doesn't exist outside the Park. Of course it does. I said that a buyer & other knowledgeable pickers can identify product that comes from the Park due to its "quality". Patches that are protected in the Park will yield bigger & older roots than areas that are regularly visited, and it will be evident that such material is 'unusual'. It's the "quality" I'm saying "doesn't exist", outside the Park.

That's interesting, you're finding ginseng right in town. Cool. Do you know of any folks growing their own patches, or 'grooming' wild patches?

Do you do any other kinds of picking & gathering, other than ginseng?

I would have to say you are still wrong in that Aspect of "quality" I have found roots well over fourty five years old in a woods of only about 6acres, (my own woods.)

dont know of anyone growing it in this area but i hear that some have..i do harvest some blood root and wild yam,and wish ginseng was bringing 900 or better a pound as of 10/19 /08 try about 265 dollars a pound lot of work for that kind of money

just curious how much is ginseng going for these days?

How does one tell how "old" a ginseng plant is?

Ive been through my woods and found lots of sang, but wouldnt dare dig it. Some are about 2 feet tall and have 4 prongs.

One more, how do you approriate dig sang, if you were going to move it closer for protection? comments?

where do you find out the current prices of ginseng?

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