Tucked in the woods across Appalachia, hidden beneath the maples, poplars, and oaks, is an unassuming herb that most people wouldn’t give a second look: ginseng. Blending in among the understory, it’s not the most distinct plant. But it’s what you can’t see that’s special. The root, growing just inches under the soil, makes this one of the most valuable herbs on the planet.
Ginseng has been used in traditional medicine systems for thousands of years. In the Asian marketplace, wild-growing ginseng is the most highly coveted. Over time demand grew and wild Asian ginseng became scarce. They soon began to import American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). As a result, ginseng has been a source of supplemental income across Appalachia for hundreds of years, with roots selling for tens, hundreds, and even thousands of dollars. Yet the notion that the root is a quick money-maker, along with the disappearance of mature hardwood forests, has led to the root’s nationwide decline.
Over the past year, Rural Action, in collaboration with the National Forest Foundation, organized volunteer-driven restoration plantings and monitoring efforts for ginseng on the Wayne National Forest in southeastern Ohio. The Wayne is one of the few remaining National Forests that allows the harvest of wild ginseng. With the Forest Service, Rural Action created management plans and established monitoring programs for ginseng and other non-timber forest products (NTFPs) including goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and ramps (Allium tricoccum).
Rural Action works in a part of Ohio that has seen extractive industries roll through one after another—clay, coal, oil, natural gas. Among other deleterious effects, this has parceled up the region’s forestland, which is often logged of its most valuable trees and left to sit devalued. However, with a little bit of planning and guidance, growing ginseng and other NTFP can look like an attractive alternative. As part of our collaboration with the NFF, Rural Action promoted a Conservation Through Cultivation approach to managing private forestland: hosting workshops and trainings to help landowners develop profitable NTFP operations on their property.
Rural Action is a membership based organization working to build sustainable local economies in Appalachian Ohio. For more information about Rural Action’s work visit www.ruralction.org.