Digging wild ginseng, or “sanging” to use the vernacular, is a part of Appalachian culture, handed down from generation to generation.
With that being said, I don’t want to encourage anyone to take up sanging. In fact, it’s part of the Appalachian culture that could probably stand to disappear. Usually in my columns I am promoting traditional pastimes, but this is different; between legitimate diggers and poachers, wild sang is having a hard time, in fact some people worry that wild ginseng is being harvested and poached faster than it can renew itself, and will eventually disappear from our woods.
I remember as a young lad my grandfather telling me about digging ginseng (I frankly was never very good at finding it). It was something that our grandparents and their parents did, but now a new breed of digger is looking to turn a fast buck, disregarding seasons and property lines, taking everything that can get them a buck. These poachers don’t care if the plants are immature, they don’t care about the landowner, they feel entitled to the plants and they just want them before someone else digs them up.
The whole chain is often driven by a combination of poverty and need among the harvesters, people who exploit them and others who market the final product to naïve people who are blindly unaware of the damage being done. We’re essentially talking about the same desperation, greed and stupidity that fuels the market for poached rhino horns or tiger gall bladders with supposed aphrodisiac powers.
Here in Ohio, ginseng can only be harvested on private property with landowner permission, and most private landowners who know the value of their plants are unlikely to allow people onto their property to collect. I would venture to say that most people digging enough wild ginseng to consider it a source of income are probably poaching. Unless you own thousands of acres or have permission to dig on it, chances are pretty good you don’t stand a chance at collecting enough to make it worthwhile.
I am making a distinction between the harvesting of wild ginseng and the cultivation of ginseng intentionally planted and grown under wild conditions or simulated wild conditions. I am also drawing a distinction between the landowner and individual who (with landowner permission) carefully harvests a plant in season in accordance with state law, and uses that plant in folk medicines for instance, but poachers are ruining it for all of us.
As a conservationist I understand the role that humans play in modern wildlife management, but ginseng doesn’t really need managed. Furthermore, it can’t run from danger, or reintroduce itself back into areas where it is has been eliminated. When it’s gone, it’s gone.
Poachers on the other hand aren’t concerned about that: they know they are stealing, they go through pains to be inconspicuous, dressing in camouflage not to hide from animals but to hide from people, landowners to be exact, the rightful owners of the plants, but to those sort of people the potential rewards outweigh the risks.
Most people wouldn’t go on someone else’s property to steal a tree, so what makes people think it is ok to go on someone else’s property to steal ginseng? A landowner can carefully nurture a stand of ginseng worth thousands of dollars over a dozen years only to have it disappear in a day or two.
There’s a misperception out there that taking plants isn’t really poaching, but it is – this past spring I heard people complaining about trespassers going on their property and digging up ramps. That’s poaching – stealing.
In Ohio the Ohio Department of Natural Resources-Division of Wildlife investigates instances of ginseng poaching and establishes rules for legitimate wild ginseng collectors. No license is required to dig wild ginseng on private land in Ohio, but diggers are required to have written permission to harvest, and to keep accurate harvest records by county and collection date. The harvest season for wild ginseng in Ohio is Sept. 1 to Dec. 31. Fresh ginseng may be sold beginning on Sept. 1, and dried ginseng may be sold from Sept. 16 to March 31. Ohio requires that all harvested plants have at least three prongs, and that seeds be planted at the place where the plant was collected. An Ohio Ginseng Dealer’s Registration Permit is required to buy ginseng for resale or export from the state. Dealers must be informed of and comply with all state laws. Harvest of ginseng is prohibited on all state-owned lands in Ohio.
There are two fact sheets that should be of interest to legitimate diggers or landowners who want to cultivate ginseng. “Ohio’s Green Gold” at http://wildlife.ohiodnr.gov and “Growing Ginseng in Ohio” at http://ohioline.osu.edu/for-fact/pdf/0056.pdf.
If you suspect somebody is digging ginseng illegally or have information call 1-800-POACHER. In Ohio poaching ginseng is a first degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Jim Freeman is wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be contacted weekdays at (740) 992-4282 or at firstname.lastname@example.org