for National Geographic News
Since the 18th century, industrious folk in Appalachia have energized their bank accounts through the harvest and sale of wild American ginseng. Today, the increasing number of local white-tailed deer is putting future American ginseng harvests in doubt.
Wild American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is one of the most widely harvested medicinal plants in the United States. When consumed by humans, it is thought to boost energy and increase concentration. It is especially popular in Asia, where a pound (half a kilogram) can fetch as much as U.S. $500.
But deer may soon kill the ginseng buzz.
Ginseng grows in hardwood forests of eastern North America from Quebec to Georgia. Most wild-harvested ginseng comes from the southern Appalachian Mountains. (The Appalachian Mountains stretch from central Alabama to central New York.)
In recent decades, as the number of the deer's natural predators and competitors has declined in the Appalachians, deer populations have exploded. The deer devour backyard gardens, stunt forest growth, smash into cars, and spread disease. They also quietly nibble away at the plants and shrubs that carpet the forests, including wild ginseng.
"Almost all [ginseng] populations are very vulnerable to extinction over the next century," said James McGraw, a conservation biologist at West Virginia University in Morgantown.
McGraw and graduate student Mary Ann Furedi created a stir about wild American ginseng's potential extinction when they published results from a five-year study of wild American ginseng and its future last month in the journal Science.
According to the study, hungry deernot human harvestersare causing ginseng to disappear. The two researchers concluded that, unless deer populations are halved, wild American ginseng plants will likely disappear within a hundred years.
If ginseng goes, so too will a centuries-old Appalachian tradition.
To keep the plant and tradition alive, McGraw and Furedi are calling for an increase in mountain lions, wolves, and deer hunters.
The North American ginseng trade dates back to the time of frontiersmen such as Daniel Boone, who made more money selling the herb than trapping furs, according to McGraw. Though the plant populations are less abundant today, the harvest continues.
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