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Government Increases Restrictions on Wild American Ginseng Export
Government Increases Restrictions on Wild American Ginseng Export

Minimum Harvest Age Extended to 10 Year-old Roots

On August 3, 2005, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced new restrictions on the export of wild American ginseng roots (Panax quinquefolius L., Araliaceae).1 The new requirement is part of the FWS finding for issuance of export permits for ginseng harvested in 2005, as required under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). FWS has now increased the minimum age for legal export to 10 years, doubling the previously required minimum of 5 years.

In its initial communication of this increased age requirement, FWS referred to the numbers of leaves, or “prongs” as they are called by harvesters, as synonymous with 10-year old plants. FWS suggested a guideline that plants should contain 4 prongs, but the 4-prong proposal was only meant to be a guideline and not an absolute rule, according to Pat Ford, a wildlife biologist at FWS. She wrote that “the increase to 10 years of age is a condition on export permits. In order to find non-detriment and allow the export of ginseng roots, we increased the minimum age from 5 years to 10 years” (P. Ford e-mail to M. Blumenthal, December 15, 2005).

Representatives of the American wild ginseng industry were taken by surprise by the announcement, as no previous notification had been made and they had not been consulted during the development of the age increase. Industry members subsequently provided information to counter the FWS erroneous notion that all (or even most) 10-year old plants bear 4 leaves. In response, the FWS deleted the stipulation regarding the number of leaves from the findings. Ford emphasized that the 4-prong stipulation had been “only a guideline not a rule as the FWS does not regulate the harvest of ginseng, only the export” (P. Ford e-mail to M. Blumenthal, December 15, 2005).

The actual assessment for the age of roots will be done by counting bud-scale scars on the rhizome, the generally accepted method for decades, in spite of the fact that most experts do not believe there is a good association between the number of scars and the age of a plant (see sidebar). Instead of looking for 5 bud-scale scars, as has been the case since the rule was last changed in 1999, inspectors will now require exports of wild American ginseng to possess a minimum of 9 bud-scale scars.1

After several meetings with herb and ginseng industry representatives—primarily the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA)—and some inquiries from the American Botanical Council and others over the potential confusion regarding the 3-prong/4-prong issue and the number of bud-scars, FWS issued a letter of clarification on August 31, 2005. The letter was sent to ginseng coordinators in those states where wild ginseng grows and is approved for export by the FWS (some states have wild ginseng growing in them but are not approved for export). The letter explained that the number of prongs was meant only as a guide and not a requirement.2 Roddy R. Gabel, Chief for the Division of Scientific Authority at the FWS wrote the following: “We wish to clarify that the Fish and Wildlife Service does not regulate the harvest of ginseng [this is done by the individual states], and the information relating numbers of leaves to age was only meant to serve as a guide to diggers to be able to age plants in the field before digging. We did not intend to impose a Federal requirement for a minimum number of leaves on ginseng at the point of harvest. We note, however, that a number of states do have such requirements as a result of our previous minimum-age requirement of 5 years, imposed in 1999-2004. We are aware that the number of leaves may vary, even for plants of the same age. For export purposes, roots are aged at the time of export based on the number of bud-scale scars, not leaves.”2

Mr. Gabel continued, “Regarding aging of ginseng roots, in our finding we advised that roots from 10-year-old plants should possess 10 bud-scale scars, just as we had previously advised that roots from 5-year-old plants should have 5 scars. After a further review of the literature, coupled with information provided by ginseng experts, we are revising this guidance, so that wild roots (10 years old or older) must possess a minimum of 9 bud-scale scars, and woods-grown and wild-simulated roots must have at least 4 bud-scale scars. This allows for the fact that, during their first year of growth, ginseng plants do not form a bud-scale scar.”2

CITES and Concern for Wild American Ginseng Populations

CITES requirements dealing with plant species pertain only to those species that are harvested for export. Not all CITES-listed plants are considered threatened or endangered. In some cases, such as with wild ginseng, where the plant is traded in relatively high volumes, the government’s regulation under CITES is also conducted for the purpose of ensuring that trade is based on sustainable harvest levels to prevent the plant from reaching the point of being threatened or endangered. Based on recent population studies, FWS has been concerned that wild ginseng may be approaching that level. Thus the increase in the minimum age required for harvest was intended to keep ginseng populations within such a sustainable level.

Because they deal with plants for export, CITES regulations do not apply to wild plants harvested for domestic consumption. However, in the case of wild American ginseng, virtually the entire crop is collected for export to Asia where there has been a robust market for wild American ginseng since it was first exported from the American colonies around 1720.3 Although American ginseng is a relatively popular ingredient in some natural soft drinks and dietary supplements, it is cultivated on special ginseng farms in North America (usually Wisconsin or British Columbia); it is not wild ginseng.

According to export data collected by the FWS Division of Management Authority, 496,416 pounds of cultivated ginseng roots were exported from the United States in 2004. Also, approximately 60,190 pounds of wild roots were exported that year. As previously stated, almost all cultivated and wild-harvested ginseng from the United States is exported, primarily to Asia; that is, People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan (P. Ford e-mail to M. Blumenthal, September 26, 2005).

Many herb industry members were surprised at the announcement of the change to 10 years of age for the export market, which was developed without comment from the public. For the purpose of making a CITES non-detriment finding for the issuance of export permits, the FWS is not required under Federal regulations to seek public comment. Nevertheless, the newly issued age requirement might be seen as predictable in light of concerns expressed recently by conservation biologists and other scientists about what they consider to be a continual decline in American wild ginseng populations in recent years.

In 1975 American wild ginseng was listed on Appendix II of CITES, thus requiring that its harvest be monitored by state agencies for it to qualify for export.4 FWS began approving export of ginseng on a state-by-state basis in 1978.

In the past few years there has also been increased concern expressed about declining populations due to browsing by deer. Further, there are issues about ginseng management in some states; for example, of the 19 states that have wild ginseng harvesting regulations, current rules allow collectors to begin harvesting in August in 7 states (see Table 1 on page 53).1 Biologists have demonstrated that in mid-August, most fruits of ginseng are still green, and seeds from these green fruits germinate at much lower rates than those from ripe fruits. Therefore, harvest seasons are not optimized to match the reproductive biology of the species (J. McGraw e-mail to M. Finney, March 8, 2006).

Table 1. Wild Ginseng Harvest Seasons per State

StateHarvest season
AlabamaSept 1 – Dec 13
ArkansasSept 1 – Dec 1
GeorgiaAug 15 – Dec 31
IllinoisFirst Saturday in Sept. – Nov 1
IndianaSept 1 – Dec 31
IowaSept 1- Oct 31
KentuckyAug 15 – Nov 30
MarylandAug 20 – Dec 1
MinnesotaSept 1 – Dec 31
MissouriSept 1 – Dec 31
New York Sept 1 – Nov 30
North CarolinaSept 1 – April 1
OhioSept 1 – Dec 31
PennsylvaniaAug 1 – Nov 30
TennesseeAug 15 – Dec 31
VermontAug 20 – Oct 10
VirginiaAug 15 – Dec 31
West Virginia Sept 1 – Nov 30
WisconsinSept 1 – Nov 1
Source: US Fish & Wildlife Service1

The previous 5-year-old minimum age for export was established by FWS in 1999.5 At that time FWS expressed concern about the continual declines in harvests throughout much of American ginseng’s range in Eastern North America and up into Eastern Canada. According to a press release from AHPA, “Ironically, one of the factors cited in [the FWS] decision was that harvests have increased over the past six years.”6 However, although the total size of the harvests has increased, biologists have been concerned about the relatively smaller size and low age of the individual roots in these harvests.

A recent article states that harvest in Kentucky, a state with an active ginseng monitoring and conservation program, yields about $10 million worth of ginseng a year in legal harvests.7 It is not known how much is poached; that is, taken illegally either without a permit or even with a permit, harvested on private or federal lands without permission, and/or harvested out of season. The reported economic value of wild ginseng dug in Kentucky has remained level since 2000, according to state figures.7

According to Patricia Ford at FWS, “We are implementing these changes to ensure that wild ginseng remains viable throughout its range in the United States. Based on recent information, we have concluded that our previous export requirement—that wild plants be at least 5 years of age—is not adequate to allow plants to mature and produce a sufficient number of fruits (seeds) to sustain future generations of ginseng. We have determined that current harvest levels of wild ginseng are not sustainable and are detrimental to the survival of the species. This is compounded by the fact that some states allow the harvest of ginseng before the seeds have had sufficient time to ripen—usually after August—and consequently have low germination rates. Additionally, several states still do not require harvesters to plant seeds of harvested ginseng plants at the point of harvest” (P. Ford e-mail to M. Blumenthal, August 10, 2005).

Ginseng Experts and Industry Question the Government’s Rationale

Members of the wild ginseng industry were predictably less than enthusiastic about the new regulations, particularly because of what they viewed as a closed-door process on the determination of the rules. AHPA’s president Michael McGuffin echoed these concerns. “I know that many AHPA members empathize with the biologists at FWS and want to be sure that wild ginseng is harvested in a sustainable manner,” he said.6 “But it must be acknowledged that the current system does not allow our input in the decision-making process, which makes it very difficult to make good business plans if wild ginseng is important to your company.”

The new change does not apply to “woodsgrown” (“wild-simulated”) ginseng; that is, roots that are cultivated in the woods in natural shade under relatively natural conditions. These plants still must be at least 5 years of age to export, according to Ford. FWS says that it has been contacting all ginseng exporters of record to advise them of procedures for export of wild-simulated and woodsgrown ginseng. The process that has been developed requires that diggers, dealers, and exporters all keep this type of ginseng separated from truly wild ginseng. This is an attempt by FWS to obviate the sale of wild-harvested roots that may be fraudulently misrepresented as woodsgrown. Canadian CITES officials do not allow the export of woodsgrown (wild-simulated) ginseng root, treating it as essentially the same as wild-harvested ginseng (P. Ford oral communication to M. Blumenthal, December 14, 2005).

Ginseng roots certified by a state as “artificially propagated” (farm cultivated) may still be exported at any age when accompanied by a valid CITES export certificate. Further, in the event that a seller or exporter has been holding wild roots from a previous year’s harvest and previously certified by a state, those roots may still be exported under the previous 5-year minimum age requirement.

Programs for the conservation of wild American ginseng have been established since 1978 after the herb was listed on Appendix II of CITES in 1975. As stated in an AHPA press release, “species listed on Appendix II are not necessarily considered to be threatened with extinction but may become so unless trade is subject to appropriate regulation. In order for Appendix II-listed species to enter into international trade, a determination must be made by the ‘scientific authority’ in the country of origin that any harvest is both legally obtained and is not detrimental to the survival of the species. The Division of Scientific Authority at FWS serves in this role for the United States.”6

Botanist, author, and noted herbal photographer Steven Foster, who has 30 years experience in studying and writing about Native American medicinal plants, expressed reservations about the effectiveness of the new restrictions: “Limiting exports to American ginseng plants 10 years or older seems curious from a conservation standpoint. In the forestry industry, the harvest of the oldest, healthiest trees is known as ‘high-grading.’ In sustainable forestry operations, the healthiest trees are preserved as the best genetic material, while crowded or weaker trees are harvested. Basically, the concern is that when you remove your healthiest, oldest genetic stock, over time, trees of less vigorous genetic stock dominate and are more susceptible to disease. It seems to me that ginseng plants that have survived for 10 or more years are the cream of the genetic crop, so to speak, so why would you encourage the taking of the strongest, healthiest survivors as a conservation measure? And of course, a digger is not going to be able to determine the age of the root until he digs it anyway (no matter how many prongs or leaflets the plant has). Might the regulation, instead, encourage the harvest of a greater number of larger plants in an effort to find roots that are 10 years old or more? Increasing the age of roots allowed for export will certainly slow exports, but ultimately, I fail to see how this regulatory edict benefits the long-term sustainability of American ginseng. Nevertheless, the ginseng trade should realize that this action is one step away from what might ultimately be the only option left to FWS in the future—an outright ban on wild ginseng exports for a few years” (S. Foster e-mail to M. Blumenthal, August 29, 2005).

“A counter argument to Foster is that population biologists who have studied ginseng (e.g., D. Gagnon and P. Nantel) have all said that only 5% of the harvestable plants in a population, or sub-population, or patch of ginseng should be harvested per year. Foster implies that all mature adults would be harvested at one time. All knowledgeable, well-trained wild crafters know not to harvest all plants in the setting at once. It is well documented that as ginseng plants grow, they reproduce more abundantly. Plants usually begin by 5 years of age and are reproducing more by 8 to 9 years of age. By increasing the export to 10 years of age we [FWS] anticipate higher reproduction and regeneration to occur” (P. Ford e-mail to M. Blumenthal, January 11, 2006).

Additional concerns and reservations have been expressed by veteran wild medicinal plant experts. Ed Fletcher of Strategic Sourcing, Inc. (Banner Elk, NC) raised concerns about the biology of ginseng roots (see sidebar). Chuck Wanzer of Botanics Trading, LLC (Blowing Rock, NC) predicts that the probable drop-off in activity by wild ginseng harvesters will have a direct impact on the collection of other wild medicinal plants of the same geographical regions, such as goldenseal root (Hydrastis canadensis L., Ranunculaceae), resulting in smaller quantities harvested and a corresponding increase in price (C. Wanzer oral communication to M. Blumenthal, September 17, 2005).

The FWS recently provided an American Ginseng Species Review.8 The FWS has also hosted public meetings regarding the ginseng issue, including meetings held January 31 in Pittsburgh, PA; February 10 in Asheville, NC; and February 15 in Indianapolis, IN. For more information regarding the export of American ginseng, contact the FWS Division of Scientific Authority (e-mail: or the FWS Division of Management Authority, Branch of Permits (phone: 1-800-358-2104 or 703-358-2104; e-mail:

Read sidebar "Threats to Wild Ginseng" by James McGraw, PhD

Read sidebar "Ginseng Ruling: How It Will Affect the Wild Ginseng Industry" by Ed Fletcher



1. USFWS. Convention permit application for American wild ginseng harvested in 2005. Washington, DC: US Fish & Wildlife Service. August 3, 2005. Available at: Accessed March 13, 2006.

2. Gabel RR. Letter to State Ginseng Coordinators. Washington, DC: US Fish & Wildlife Service. August 31, 2005. Available at: Accessed March 13, 2006.

3. Foster S. American ginseng (Panax quinquefoliu). Botanical Booklet Series No. 308. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; 1996.

4. Robbins CS. American Ginseng: The root of North America’s Medicinal Herb Trade. TRAFFIC North America; 1998.

5. FWS. Convention Permit Applications for Ginseng. Washington, DC: US Fish and Wildlife Service; 1999.

6. FWS Extends Harvest Age on Wild American Ginseng to 10 Years. AHPA Update. Silver Spring, MD: American Herbal Products Association. August 5, 2005.

7. Maimon A. Poachers endanger Kentucky’s ginseng. Dye, tracking used to protect root. Louisville, KY: Courier-Journal. June 6, 2005. Available at: Accessed March 13, 2006.

8. Ford P. Annex 1 American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius L.): Species Review. Washington, DC: US Fish & Wildlife Service. Available at: Accessed March 13, 2006.