Dawn Combs
January 29, 2014
American ginseng (Panex quinquefolius) is a highly valued medicinal plant, but it's threatened due to poacher activity. Photo courtesy American Herbal Products Association (HobbyFarms.com)
Courtesy American Herbal Products Association

I spent last evening watching “The Lorax” with my kids. I found it very timely in light of what is currently going on with our native ginseng (Panex quinquefolius).

Our native stands of ginseng are being poached nearly to extinction. A recent L.A. Times article lamented the illegal harvesting that takes place in Smoky Mountains National Park. Unfortunately, a popular cable network seems to have missed the point. Recently, a new series glorifying the ginseng poacher has further threatened the health of this beautiful plant.

Watching “The Lorax” seemed an appropriate reminder of what happens when we chase money through the path of a plant’s destruction. In this case, the demand in this country, as well as abroad in China, make this particular plant very valuable indeed. Unfortunately, because  the root of ginseng is needed, individual plants are destroyed when harvested.

When we lose the ginseng, it will not be just the valuable medicine for humans that will be lost. In every ecosystem, there’s a cooperation between all the organisms. As preservationist organizations replant ginseng, we are learning that they live in cooperation with goldenseal. Both plants protect each other from common pests. We must understand that the medicine within these plants that is used for humanity is only part of the story. When we lose ancient plants like ginseng, we lose medicine for our soils and we begin a domino effect that can take other important plants and animals with them.

The good news is that there are organizations fighting for the ginseng. United Plant Savers, the American Herbal Products Association, the American Botanical Council and many, many others are standing up for the protection of these valuable medicinal elders.

As we hear about plant and animal extinctions around the world, it can be easy to either distance ourselves or to feel helpless. Here we have a situation that can be easily remedied by gardeners across the country. At Mockingbird Meadows we grow ginseng in the front flower bed underneath the hawthorn tree. If you have a shady spot that you can keep evenly moist, you can help! When a plant is threatened, one of the best things we can do is to provide it with sanctuary. Making room in one of your flower beds for our endangered medicinals means that their genetic material lives on, regardless of what happens in our nation’s forests. You will be rewarded for your efforts in the case of ginseng by lush greenery, a beautiful white spring bloom followed by a cluster of elegant red berries in the understory of your shade garden or woods.

If you don’t have a space to plant in, you can always get involved in preserving this plant in other ways. Most importantly, if you are using ginseng you, can help by ensuring that it is grown or wild harvested sustainably. If we cease to reward the market in poached ginseng, it will soon dry up.

“The Lorax” is a great movie with a beautiful message—one we can apply to our native medicinals. Ginseng can be harvested sustainably, in a manner that ensures natural stands continue to stay healthy for years to come. Without care, we leave nothing behind for the health of the forest and no medicine in the woods for future generations.

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