Wild ginseng survival threatened by poachers and out of season digging

CHARLESTON, W.Va.- Digging ginseng before the season opens Sept. 1 is illegal.

The West Virginia Division of Forestry reminds the public that poaching this slow-growing herb is not a victimless crime.

“Because out-of-season digging puts the survival of wild ginseng at risk, the victims are all of us: you and the generations after you,” said Ginseng Coordinator Robin Black, state Division of Forestry.

West Virginia state law regulates ginseng trade to protect the survival of wild ginseng.

Assistant State Forester John Bird, Special Operations and Enforcement, summarized key points of the law:

  • Ginseng season begins Sept. 1 and ends Nov. 30. Out of season digging is illegal. Possessing ginseng out of season also ranks as a criminal offense.
  • Ginseng hunters must have written permission from the landowner to be on the property. “The code requiring written permission applies to company land as well as that of private individuals,” Bird said. This must be in the hunter’s possession while digging.
  • Digging ginseng on state-owned land is illegal in West Virginia.
  • In or out of season, harvesting ginseng less than five years old is criminal. The plant must have at least three prongs and 15 leaflets, plus berries that are bright red. If the plant has fewer prongs or if the berries are not red, it is illegal to disturb the plant.
  • All ginseng diggers – even those digging within the legal season — are required to replant the seeds of wild ginseng where the plants were harvested.
  • Diggers must show government-issued photo identification to a registered dealer to sell ginseng legally.

A first violation on any one of these counts can be fined up to $1,000. Each subsequent offense can result in fines up to $2,000, a jail term up to six months, or both. The court will order the offender to forfeit the ginseng as well.

Illegal hunting stunts ginseng proliferation
Wild ginseng has been an ingredient in medicinal folklore for generations. Illegal harvesting puts this piece of Appalachian culture and heritage at risk.

Ginseng grows slowly. It needs five years or more to mature and reproduce. The plant produces a stalk that blooms in midsummer and produces berries that ripen into a bright red. Each mature berry contains one to three seeds. The seeds take two years to germinate.

When diggers take a ginseng root too early, its flowers cannot ripen into seed-bearing berries. Without the seeds, the plant cannot produce a new generation.

“Those berries are what keep the populations going,” Black said.

“Plants are getting smaller and in turn getting harder to find in the woods,” Bird said. “The majority of the old ginseng is of the past. If wild ginseng grows large now, it does not last long. It is found and stolen.”

Traditionally, responsible diggers replant seeds, harvest at the right time and protect the resource for the future. Now too many diggers are plundering for quick money.

“We started seeing an increase in violations around 2015,” Black said. “Violations and citations have increased in the six years since the state Division of Natural Resources (DNR) Law Enforcement started focusing on early harvesting. The DNR tracking program makes it easier to know for what violations the citations were written.”

Dealers who buy illegal ginseng to sell here or export abroad also risk criminal charges. Ginseng dealers must register with the West Virginia Division of Forestry to get a permit. Diggers have until March 31 to sell to a registered West Virginia ginseng dealer or have roots weight-receipted at one of the West Virginia Division of Forestry weigh stations. A weight receipt is a record of the ginseng dug during the current year and the individual who wants to hold it over to the next digging/buying season.

State law allows Division of Forestry employees to inspect ginseng operations or records. Dealers who buy or sell uncertified or out of season ginseng will face having their permits revoked and can be fined the same as illegal diggers. In addition, dealers who sell ginseng across state lines without a certificate would be in violation of the Lacey Act, a federal law that prohibits trade in illegal wildlife, fish, and plants.

How to protect West Virginia’s wild ginseng
Landowners and the public can help by watching for these signs, said Bird:

  • Transportation. Diggers may park in remote areas during the day for long periods.
  • Bags of herbs. Diggers may try to conceal out-of-season ginseng by mixing it into a bag of other plants.
  • Digging tools. By themselves, tools are not evidence of criminal activity, but they may be one of many clues. Tools include sharpened sticks, trowels or hoes specially designed to avoid damaging the root skin. Some may use screwdrivers, which often damage the ginseng root and drop its market value.
  • Disturbed soil. Dug up areas where ginseng patches were known to grow.

“Landowners can set up trail cameras on ginseng patches on their property,” Bird said. “Check the patches periodically. Also, visit the Division of Forestry’s ginseng page and click ‘Report a Violation’ if you suspect illegal activity.”

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