Ginseng: Ohio’s green gold

“THERE’S gold in them thar hills.”

Yosemite Sam or whoever said that in an old Western movie wasn’t referring to Eastern Ohio, but this area does have gold – but it’s green not yellow.

Instead, it’s ginseng, a herb, also known as Ohio’s green gold.

Eastern Ohio isn’t unique in having ginseng as the plant grows throughout the Buckeye State and in other states, but the herb does provide an unusual sidelight to the import-export picture.

People usually complain about all the imports received from Asia, especially China, but ginseng is one thing that the Chinese like to import from the United States.

Ohio certifies about 3,000 pounds of ginseng for export each year.

Brett Barnes of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife, said there currently are approximately 50 dealers who buy ginseng in Ohio.

Among the dealers is Earl Stephens, who has been buying ginseng since 1972. Stephens, a Belmont County resident, became a ginseng dealer after his father died.

“My dad bought it as far back as I can remember,” he said.

Stephens usually buys about 100-150 pounds of the herb each year although years ago, he would buy 600-700 pounds. It comes from five or six different counties, according to the Belmont County dealer.

He buys only wild ginseng, not cultivated. There’s quite a difference in price, and Stephens explained there are three or four different grades of cultivated ginseng. “You have to know what you’re doing when you buy cultivated,” he said.

The price of ginseng fluctuates, and the wild herb often sells for $400 to $500 a pound while the cultivated is worth much, much less. Barnes said the cultivated variety is only worth $40 to $60 a pound while Stephens estimated the price as $18 to $20 a pound.

In 2007, the value of the dried wild root zoomed as high as $1,000 a pound. One Web site reports about 275 dry roots are required for a pound.

The Chinese, according to Barnes, believe wild ginseng has more benefits than the cultivated.

Most of the ginseng grown in Ohio goes to China where it is used medicinally and as a herbal supplement mainly for vitality, the ODNR official explained. He added it also is used as a herbal supplement in this country, and the ginseng in tea and capsules in the United States is the cultivated variety.

Ginseng has been used by the Chinese for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, but some Web sources note it is not recommended for children or persons with certain conditions.

There are different prices for the roots, and buyers look at the quality and the age. Aged roots grown in the ground are wrinkled and higher priced, Barnes said.

Asian, Korean or Chinese ginseng is one of the two common types of the herb while American, Canadian or North American is the other. American ginseng, a slow-growing perennial herb, typically grows as tall as 8-15 inches.

According to ODNR, the plant prefers mature woodlands, frequently on slopes, where it favors rich soil and dense shade.

The harvest season for wild ginseng in Ohio is Sept. 1 through Dec. 31. Green ginseng may be sold, beginning Sept. 1, although dry ginseng can’t be sold, according to Ohio law, until after Sept. 15.

Stephens indicated that on a practical basis, digging season for ginseng is over between Oct. 15 and 20, because leaves fall on the ground and cover up the plants.

Currently one of the most sought-after medicinal plants in the world, ginseng has been used for more than 2,000 years and at one time, only Chinese emperors had the right to collect the roots.

In Ohio, ginseng gatherers aren’t limited to emperors, and ODNR estimates there are 2,000 to 4,000 diggers. Diggers and dealers must abide by provisions of the ginseng law.

Barnes, who is state wildlife investigator, said an investigation regarding ginseng begun two-and-a-half years ago is still under way. To date, 36 persons are going to be charged with still others expected to be charged later.

There are 61 charges for those 36 individuals, and Barnes said they reside throughout the state but most are in southern and southeastern Ohio.

“We’ve also seized about 200 pounds of ginseng, green and dried,” he said.

ODNR reports the charges may include digging ginseng without landowner permission, collecting or possession of ginseng during the closed season, failure to maintain accurate records and failure to certify ginseng prior to export.

“The reason we enforce ginseng laws is because it takes five years for the plant to become mature and to produce seeds for planting,” said Barnes. “It’s a slow-growing plant and if harvested unregulated, it could go extinct.”

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