Pennsylvania is one of 19 states where American ginseng can be harvested, but the Allegheny National Forest has placed a prohibition on picking the perennial plant due to overhartesting and degradation of the its habitat.
"As a result, it is now rare in most parts of the United States and Canada. In addition to naturally occurring populations, it is also grown commercially in several states under artificial shade, wood cultivated, or through wild-simulated methods," according to the U.S. Forest Service.
There is a rich history of ginseng collection, cultivation and trade in the forests of Pennsylvania and the surrounding areas and continues to have strong economic impacts. The fleshy tube-like root of the plant is used to make medicine and herbal remedies and has high value in Asian markets.
A rather common-looking plant
Ginseng is seen in a full-development state. The roots of the plant are prized as an herbal remedy, especially by Asian cultures. However, over-harvesting and habitat loss has prompted state and federal agencies to restrict its harvesting.
Ginseng can also be negatively impacted by deer browsing, digging by turkeys in spring seeps, and habitat fragmentation.
"Ginseng populations on the Allegheny National Forest are sparse. As such, collection for both personal and commercial use is prohibited," according to an ANF spokesman.
The plant has been identified by a Regional Forester for concerns with population density demonstrated by a "significant current or predicted downward trend in numbers and density."
Penalties for removing ginseng from National Forest lands can include a fine up to $5,000 and six months in jail.
"Appalachian Outlaws," a television show on the History channel has highlighted the business behind ginseng which can sell for $1,000 per pound for its common use in Chinese or herbal medicine and unique habitat requirements.
"Deep in Appalachia, a war is brewing over one valuable commodity: ginseng. With global demand skyrocketing, dealers are eager to get in on the game, and with prices hovering around $1,000 per pound, diggers are in a frenzy to harvest the mountain gold. Some even believe its gnarled roots have special healing powers. Whoever controls the ginseng, controls the mountains," according to the History channel.
There are also Federal laws governing the collection and export for sale of ginseng under the convention Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Ginseng root is exported in larger volumes than any other native CITES plant species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Collecting ginseng on state,- and federally-managed public lands in Pennsylvania is not allowed and includes Department of Conservation and Natural Resources bureaus of Forestry, State Parks, State Game Lands and the ANF. Residents do not need a permit to collect ginseng, however, on privately owned land, though land owner permission is needed to harvest it for legal sale, according to the DCNR.