In the woods of New Hampshire, a gnarly beige root is becoming a very valuable, buried treasure.
You might not expect it, but wild ginseng grows here. It's coveted more than ever throughout Asia, and it's at its highest price ever. That demand is putting the state's plants at risk.
New Hampshire Public Radio's Dan Gorenstein reports.
I’m almost surprised that my hosts didn’t blindfold me on our way into these woods.
They’ve asked me not to name the tract of land.
What I can say is that we are standing in a lush hardwood forest in the western part of the state on land owned by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.
Peter Ellis, the Society’s ecologist and land steward Richard Thompson are out here conducting their annual ginseng survey.
Last year a few of the property’s older plants were poached.
Thompson drops to his knees in frustration.
It’s happened again.
12:30 let’s go check on the other populations....
sfx: walking through the woods (no voices).
An hour’s worth of poking around, tracking plant locations on Ellis’s GPS monitor finds that this year, 17 have been nabbed.
1:08 oh my....
....Look at the size of this one...
2:11....we better GPS this...
Thompson has been checking on ginseng populations in New Hampshire and Vermont for the past 20 years.
Even though he has planted thousands of seeds in that time, development and wildlife have been tough on the plant.
And then there’s the poaching.
4:15 (you take this personally).......Just in one day, to come in here and wipe out everything.
For at least 4000 years people in Asia have incorporated ginseng into their diets.
There people use it to improve general health, they believe it keeps older people active and lively.
Over the centuries the more desirable wild ginseng has been so heavily dug that it is now nearly wiped out in Asia- leaving only farm raised plants.
Wild Asian ginseng is so rare that one old root discovered in Korea a few years ago sold for $60,000.
As a result, the only place left in the world where wild ginseng can be found in any quantity is throughout the woodlands of the eastern United States.
And Cornell University Cooperative Extension’s Bob Beyfuss says the appetite for wild American root is likely to grow.
14:31 ...As the Chinese people and Asian people in general become more affluent the demand for the higher quality g....demand has risen sig. over the last 25 years.
What that means for parcel’s of land like the Forest Society’s is that increasingly these hidden patches are more and more valuable.
There are laws on the books against poaching ginseng in New Hampshire.
Stealing and transporting the plant across state lines are non-criminal offenses punishable by up to $1,000 per violation.
The problem...there isn’t a cop on every hillside.
Beyfuss says it’s easy to walk into the woods dig up a few plants and never be noticed.
Not only is it easy to steal, but he says it’s also really easy to unload.
35:45...there will be questions. But you don’t have to respond honestly to those questions.
Beyfuss says at least in New York, dealers are required to ask a digger only his name and home county.
To people in the ginseng industry it’s nothing new that ginseng is easy to steal and sell.
But in just the last three weeks, rangers have caught 24 poachers in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, that’s more than in the last three years combined.
The reason....since September the root’s price has gone through the roof and is at an all-time high.
The price spike is due to restrictions on its sale in 2005, a short crop last year and drought in the southeast this year.
W. Scott Persons has been growing ginseng in his woods in North Carolina for 27 years.
He’s tried everything to get rid of poachers....signs, fences, dying his roots, he’s even hired an ex-military man to occasionally sweep his patches.
His advice to the Forest Society: plant your way out of the problem.
35:12 the one thing he might want to consider is digging his g. mature roots. The ones he can bring a profit from. Buy g. seed, and plant it. The young plants aren’t attractive to poachers and he will end up with more g. on his property than if he tries to keep poachers from it. if he succeeds he will have more value out in the woods and he can afford to spend more money to keep poachers out.
Persons says the best way to preserve ginseng is- plant high grade roots, sell them, increase the supply and flood the market.
He warns anyone that wants to buy a bag of seeds- this so-called green gold won’t just grow anywhere.
But if the price stays at $800 bucks a pound a few people might be willing to try some buried treasure in the backyard anyway.
For NHPR News, I’m DG.