Ginseng trade not 'Wild West' that TV portrays

Columbus — Don’t believe everything you see on TV.

A half-dozen ginseng harvesters and dealers who attended a March 7 meeting at the Ohio DNR’s central office agreed “Appalachian Outlaws,” a reality cable television show about the ginseng trade, is more fiction than fact.

“The show is scripted,” said Tanner Filyaw of Rural Action in Athens County. “They have a West Virginia consultant who makes sure nothing illegal really happens.”

Dealer Mitch McCullough of Ohio River Ginseng said the series over-dramatizes the danger and stereotypes those involved in the trade. He said widespread theft and free-wheeling car chases depicted in the show are not part of ginseng culture.  

While harvesting ginseng is not a “get rich quick” endeavor, there is money to be made from the perennial herb. As a result, the number of Ohioans cultivating plants has increased dramatically in recent years.

Found in 19 eastern U.S. states and Canada, American ginseng is largely a product of the Appalachian region. Plants grow eight to 15 inches high on shady, well drained hillsides. Early summer blooms ripen into green fruit, then red berries by early fall. Those berries make plants easier to spot for digging.

Freshly dug or “green” ginseng root is carefully dried for sale to local dealers. Those dealers, in turn, re-sell the root for export to the Far East. 

Kentucky ranks first in U.S. ginseng production; Ohio is about sixth, according to Ron Ollis, a n Ohio DNR law enforcement administrator. 

Melissa Moser, who oversees ginseng certification and management for the agency, said wild plants are found all over Ohio. Her research follows the life cycles of plants at 15 secret sites between Fulton and Scioto counties. She looks for the

impacts of disease, deer, weather, and poaching on Ohio’s native wild stock.

She’s never encountered a poacher, but said grazing deer do significant damage to a patch of ginseng.

“They eat the tops of my tagged plants,” Moser said.

Previous research prompted the state to delay the start of Ohio’s harvest season from Aug. 15 to Sept. 1, she said. 

State law says ginseng must be at least 5 years old for harvest. Age is determined by the size and number of scars on the root. Berries of wild ginseng must be replanted at the harvest site.

Gnarly wild root is most prized by Asians, who believe it promotes good health and sexual prowess.

Digging is prohibited on state-owned lands in Ohio and in the national parks. However, limited harvest is allowed on the Wayne National Forest – one of only two national forests open to diggers, Ollis noted.

Filyaw’s organization began successfully promoting domestic ginseng cultivation about 15 years ago as a forest management project. Rural Action sells seeds to local landowners for scatter in woodlots and clear-cuts.

“It allows forests to recover,” Filyaw said.

Prices for naturally wild and cultivated ginseng root vary greatly and skilled dealers can tell the difference at a glance.

While dried wild root earns $800 to $1,000 per pound on the international market, forest-cultivated ginseng brings only $120. Field cultivated warrants even less – about $50 per pound, Filyaw added.

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