American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius L., is one of the most iconic medicinal plants in North America. The rich culture and traditions surrounding this species go far back into history, from European settlement to present day. The revered root of this forest herb contains potent immune boosting and healing properties, and during the height of its collection in the 18th and 19th centuries its abundance declined dramatically. While ginseng's range extends from Quebec south to Louisiana, and east throughout the mid-Atlantic states and north to Maine and Ontario, the heart of its range are the central Appalachian states.
Given concerns about the long-term and short-term decline, both the Canadian and United States governments protect it by regulating collection of all parts of the ginseng plant. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the species in CITES Appendix II (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which regulates the harvest and export internationally, and in Canada it is listed in both SARA (Species at Risk Act) and COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife Canada). Loss of habitat is a persistent threat, as is the belief, and primary driver for wild collection, that the efficacy of wild roots is superior to cultivated roots. The market for wild collected root continues to be strong. Even with regulation of international harvest and trade by the U.S. government, and a complete ban on collection in Canada, concern over other on-going threats such as deer herbivory, and genetic degradation have lead scientists to question the population health of this species.
While concern over American ginseng's population status has continued to mount, and scientists extrapolate decline based on various metrics like monitoring projects looking at demography or herbarium specimen data, field inventory studies are lacking. State wide field-based population studies are critical in evaluating the age, health, abundance and distribution and are used to assess the Natural Heritage State Ranks (SRANK), which support the Global Conservation Rank (GRANK). Another major conservation concern is the impact of harvesters using 'wild simulated' seed when replanting recently harvested populations, rather than local seed. Wild simulated seed comes from plants grown in cultivation in a forest setting, but are sourced from only a few geographic locations. Given what is known about the genetics of ginseng, and that populations are long-lived and adapted to their particular locations, introducing seed from other geographic areas could degrade the existing gene pool making local populations less suited to their geographic site.
In series of serendipitous events, NatureServe's Botany Dept. was awarded funding to execute field studies in two states with some of the highest annual harvest rates, Indiana (5th highest) and Illinois (8th highest). Field inventory throughout each of these states dates or predates the 1980s, as does the review of the Natural Heritage State Rank (SRANK) for each state. The question of the species population status and viability are paramount to a range-wide evaluation. These two states are the first to undergo thorough field evaluations in what NatureServe hopes will be a state-by-state review. Determining the impact from introducing 'wild simulated' seed throughout populations in both Indiana and Illinois is vital in understanding the threat level to the species in these states, but also to the species as a whole.
- Collect field-based population data on American Ginseng throughout Indiana and Illinois in order to update the state conservation status assessments
- Collect DNA samples to augment on-going research to determine the impacts of “wild simulated” seed left by harvesters on native ginseng populations
Even though ginseng harvest is significant, the impacts of harvesting and other threats on the species have not been comprehensively evaluated in the state of Indiana or Illinois in the last 15 years. Therefore, the significance of this study is its simplicity: a field study to assess populations of American ginseng throughout Indiana and Illinois. Given that both Indiana and Illinois are top exporting states, and the status of the species hasn't been evaluated in either for more than 15 years, makes them good choices for harvest impact studies. Many studies on ginseng have to relied on either herbarium data or inferences from trade data. Additionally, there are many opinions about the stability of ginseng as a species and these need to be corroborated by field studies. Knowing that harvest pressure continues to increase, field investigation is critical to the evaluation of the health of the species.
The major conservation concern for ginseng in both Indiana and Illinois is the intensity of harvest pressure, evidenced by the quantity of illegally collected root seized by federal and state government officials in 2014 (Department of Justice). The offender purchased $54,000 of illegally collected ginseng root between 2008 and 2010, and was convicted of violating the Lacey Act. Approximately 1,708 pounds of illegally trafficked wild root was seized during the investigation. From a conservation standpoint, this means that the collection pressure on wild ginseng populations is high, and that field-based inventory is critically needed.
Another major conservation concern is the impact of certain harvesting practices. Most collectors follow the long-honored tradition of leaving seed behind in harvested populations, ensuring roots for future harvest. The concern is not over the practice of leaving seed behind, but the source and geographic origin of the seed being planted. Rather than leaving seed from the original population during harvest, collectors sometimes leave ‘wild-simulated’ seed instead. Wild-simulated seed originates from farmed populations typically from other states. Unfortunately, there may be negative consequences from mixing ‘wild-simulated’ seed with true wild populations because the genetic vigor of the true wild population can be reduced. If the practice of using 'wild-simulated' seed is occurring on a large scale, it could impact ginseng’s long-term viability.
Field inventories will provide valuable data on the current population status, while promoting genetic research, and ultimately advancing ginseng conservation. Information gathered by field botanists will also contribute to evaluating state conservation status ranks of ginseng. State conservation status ranks underpin the rangewide conservation status and fill a critical knowledge gap for both conservation practitioners and land managers.