State officials consider a ban on harvesting the popular herb, ginseng, from all state lands.
Ginseng, one of the most sought-after medicinal herbs in the world, once flourished across much of Maryland. It has nearly vanished now, though, from all but the westernmost counties, prompting officials to ponder banning commercial harvest of the lucrative plant from all state lands.
A recent survey coordinated by Christopher F. Puttock, a research associate with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, found that the cure-all plant known to scientists as Panax quinquefolius has disappeared from spots in the eastern and central parts of Maryland where patches had been seen 30 years ago.
Places in Baltimore, Calvert, Harford, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties that harbored at least a little wild ginseng a few decades ago now appear to be barren, Puttock said in an interview. Even in the woodsy west, the herb’s abundance has declined, he said, and only Garrett still has a relatively healthy population.
“What we’ve done is harvested it out of being common,” he said, “to the point where whatever else is in the forest is just consuming what’s left.”
Ginseng’s vanishing act worries conservationists, who note its long history. It grows in forests from Maine to the Midwest, most commonly in Appalachia and the Ozarks, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Native Americans used to harvest ginseng to treat a variety of maladies, and it has been exported since the 1700s, primarily to Asia.
Traditional medicine regards it as an “adaptogen,” which helps the body adjust to various kinds of stress. Though scientific evidence of its effectiveness is wanting, it remains one of the most widely traded herbs. In the international market, a single pound of dried wild ginseng roots can fetch $1,000 or more.
“In the East it was really common,” said Puttock, but up until about 1900 “people were just gathering as much as they could,” unmindful of the fact that uprooting plants prevented them from producing seeds for future generations. More than 350,000 pounds of dried ginseng roots were exported in 1858, according to federal data.