By CARIN TUNNEY & CHAO YAN
Capital News Service
LANSING — While uprooting a plant may seem harmless, conservationists say the environmental consequences of removing ginseng could someday be severe.
The plant is highly vulnerable due to high market demand, especially in Asia where it is made into supplements.
The native plant is already considered endangered in Michigan. That’s why conservation officers and high-tech methods are in place to prevent poachers who break laws elsewhere from coming to Michigan, where the plant is on the state list of threatened species.
A 1994 state law regulates the harvesting, sale and distribution of American ginseng, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
The plant grows in beech-maple and northern hardwood-conifer forests, DNR says, and the state law, which covers wild and cultivated ginseng, makes it illegal to take American ginseng from the wild.
According to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, produced by Michigan State University Extension Service, it grows primarily in Southern Michigan, mostly in woodlots and wooded coastal dunes, plus small scattered populations in the northern Lower Peninsula, the Thumb and the Upper Peninsula’s Gogebic County.
“The small population size is likely due to extensive woodlot grazing and to the considerable exploitation of this species for the ginseng trade over the years,” a fact sheet on ginseng says.
Conservation officers rely on tips and ask the public to report cars parked near forests, people carrying shovels or backpacks, or those with dirt-covered clothes. The Ohio DNR also educates police about ginseng theft and recommends looking for evidence of wild ginseng during drug arrests.
But getting caught isn’t limited to being spotted in the woods, says Jim Corbin of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture’s plant industry division.
The Agriculture Department uses a high-tech method to track poachers on federal lands. Ginseng roots on public lands are fed a nutrient dye that leaves a forensic trace, Corbin says. Legal dealers face inspections and must list where each root is removed. Those records can be cross-checked through the dye in the roots to trace poached ginseng back to the thief.
“We go back and are able to utilize that in courtroom situations when they are stolen or when there is a violation where they go on national parks and national forests. We will make those seizures and read those individual codes that we mark the plants with,” Corbin says.
The Agriculture Department also tracks the illegal sale of ginseng online through websites like Craigslist and eBay. They target dealers and overseas trafficking.
For CITES-listed species to be exported, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorities must determine that the wild American ginseng was legally harvested and won’t jeopardize survival of the species. Each year, the 19 states that regulate the harvesting of ginseng report the previous year’s total harvest by county. The agency then uses that data, scientific research and other biological and trade information to determine if the export will be detrimental.
Poaching can be a family tradition or common among foragers who go beyond the legal gathering of berries, nuts, mushrooms, leeks and edible ferns, conservationists say.
Poachers also seek orchids, trillium and trees for their aesthetic value, they say.
More attention should be given to plant poaching and theft, says Matt Candeias, a community ecologist and creator of the In Defense of Plants website and podcast, which have more than 21,000 followers.
“People get up in arms when they hear tigers are being poached or rhinos are being poached,” he says. “They don’t think about a plant as poaching. It is almost like plants don’t move and they don’t have the charisma of an eagle or a bear so they are not important.”
“When you think about protecting any kind of endangered species, plants are the habitat,” he says.
Some responsibility for plant poaching falls on consumers for not asking questions about the origin of the plants and plant-based products they buy as supplements or at nurseries, says Candeias.
“It’s market-driven. If people can understand that what they are buying increases the pressures on these organisms, maybe a difference could be made in that regard.”
Carin Tunney and Chao Yan write for Great Lakes Echo.
Michigan Natural Features Inventory information on ginseng: https://mnfi.anr.msu.edu/abstracts/botany/Panax_quinquefolius.pdf.