The legal season for harvesting wild ginseng in New York state is underway, running through Nov. 30 after a Sept. 1 start date. According to Jason Denham, who oversees ginseng harvesting for the Department of Environmental Conservation, this year’s wild foraged harvest should total several hundred pounds.
Most of that ginseng will be dried and sold for herbal medicine uses, but increasingly green (or freshly harvested) ginseng has penetrated the market, Denham says. Four hundred pounds of ginseng is a small harvest, while a large harvest would double that figure. Considering that 1 pound of dried ginseng can total as many as 120 plant roots, the amount of ginseng that will come from the woods of New York is an impressive figure.
Ginseng is native to the Appalachian region of North America and eastern Asia. It is a slow-growing plant with a bundle of bright red berries ascending on a thin stalk from a wreath of leaves. It prefers cool, shaded habitats and typically, Denham says, it takes five years from seed to harvest to get legal-sized ginseng roots. (He compares it to the fishing industry, which regulates size to determine if the specimen had proper time for reproduction.) Foragers must replant ginseng seeds within 50 feet of the plants that were just harvested. (There is some research that supports root regeneration if a portion is left in the ground, but nothing conclusive.)
Ginseng displayed on a table. (Provided)
Anyone can harvest ginseng, but to sell it a permit must be acquired from the DEC. This dealer’s license is free, must be renewed annually and is required by the state in order to gather data that is reported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This reporting allows the U.S. to stay in compliance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which was ratified in 1975. CITES monitors the status of certain species in commercial trade. While Denham says ginseng is not endangered locally, the high demand for Appalachian (especially Catskill region) ginseng in China requires the international monitoring.
Denham says that the Catskill Mountain region is a noted source for quality ginseng and equates the reason to the importance of terroir in wine making; the soil and climate in which ginseng is grown affects the final product, and the Catskills produce exceptional ginseng that is sought around the world.
“Because the roots live longer [in the Catskills], it precedes quality,” says Bob Beyfuss of Preston Hollow, who has been harvesting ginseng for 40 years. He says that while ginseng harvested from Kentucky is valued at $400 to $500 per pound, ginseng from New York is worth as much as double.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the annual wholesale value of American ginseng is $26.9 million, as of 2014. Some ginseng has been sold for as much as $1,400 per pound, and there has been a 40 percent annual increase on ginseng exported to China, the largest foreign market for American ginseng.
A close-up shot of ginseng. (Provided)
Beyfuss, who wrote his graduate thesis on ginseng in 1984 while studying agriculture at Cornell University and working as a Cornell Cooperative Extension agent, began taking ginseng to deal with stress.
“I was stressed out in grad school. I learned that our ginseng was the best in the world for dealing with stress,” he says, and within a year of taking the ginseng on a daily basis, he lost 35 pounds, managed his stress and increased his focus to excel in school. The health benefits of ginseng are the leading cause for its harvest, as ginseng has traditional medicinal applications for assuaging memory, fatigue, menopause and insulin issues.
Others use ginseng for its culinary advantages, especially in Korean culture. Jinah Kim, owner of Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen in Troy, says, “The ginseng root is a long-standing traditional ingredient found in Korean cooking.” Her mother, a Korean immigrant who runs the Sunhee’s kitchen, recently prepared a chicken and rice porridge recipe that used 1-year-old raw ginseng root that Kim’s father had grown.
“With just a little bit of sea salt added, the flavors of the dish were absolutely perfect and balanced with a nice, strong aroma of ginseng,” she says.
Beyfuss stopped taking ginseng after graduate school, but started again as a health aid when he turned 60. He ingests half a gram of dry, powdered ginseng root a day that he packs in a capsule. (Eating the root raw, he says, tastes like a bitter carrot.) While he still harvests wild ginseng, most of the product he deals with is grown as an agricultural product.
His company, American Ginseng Pharm, is based in Treadwell, Delaware County, and has invested $7 million in wild simulated ginseng grown in a method he calls “conservation through cultivation.” A hundred acres of this ginseng has been planted across 100 miles in Albany, Delaware and Greene counties, mostly on land that has been over-timbered with a small shady canopy and has little value otherwise, allowing the benefits of wild ginseng to propagate without threat of over-harvest.
Denham says the biggest risk to wild ginseng is poaching from state and private land without proper regeneration methods. “People think it is a way to get rich quick,” he says, and provenance is hard to prove within the dealer system, as ginseng harvesters are protective of their sources. Beyfuss feels ginseng has value and potential as a cash crop in New York, especially with a renewed resurgence in growing and harvesting in the past 25 years.
“I don’t think it’s dying out. It’s still an important part of the culture,” he says, “we just need to teach others how to grow it.”