Conserving Medicinally and Culturally Significant Southeastern Plants

April 7, 2020

Written by Lauren Garcia Chance, Director of Research and Conservation

There are many things that are unique to the Southern Appalachians; the use of the word holler as a place– not an action, the way ‘bless your heart’ may not mean what you think it does, and the role of wild plants in the local culture.

Recently, while attending the Southeastern Partners in Plant Conservation Conference, an entire portion of the conference was devoted to protecting plants of cultural and medicinal significance. Medicinal plants harvested from southeastern states comprise a multi-million-dollar industry and include well known examples like American ginseng and goldenseal. Culturally significant species comprise a large number and wide variety of plants used by Native American and other groups. Conservation of these species requires different approaches than those normally undertaken for rare species. This is because the conservation goal goes beyond preventing extinction and includes ensuring sustainable harvesting into the future. While there were many talks, from cutleaf coneflower to ramps, ginseng stole the show thanks to its storied history and unknown future.

Ginseng use has long been a staple of traditional Chinese medicine, ubiquitous in Korea, and increasingly popular in Singapore, Malaysia, and other countries with large ethnic Chinese populations. In East Asia, native stocks are nearly extinct; in China and Russia, they are banned from being traded. The only other place where ginseng is indigenous is the eastern half of North America, where it grows amid ferns, trillium, bloodroot, and other low-lying vegetation. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) has a natural range expanding roughly from Canada and the northern US down to a point in Northern Georgia. The ginseng trade has been present in the US since the early 1700’s when it was discovered that American ginseng could be a viable substitute for the decimated populations of Asian ginseng. It did not take long for the US to create similar impacts at home.

In addition to the specific growing conditions of ginseng, human factors have reduced the populations and availability of this plant species even further. Illegal poaching and hunting on public and private lands accounts for more than 80% of the market. Logging activities expose forest floors to sunny conditions and remove much of the loamy, topsoil that ginseng grows so well in. Add in the fact that it takes at least five years, and sometimes up to 10 to 15 years, for a plant to mature into a good, harvestable size places ginseng at high risk of overharvesting. Finally, these factors combined with the limitations of agricultural cultivation, lead to ginseng populations seen only in deep woods or protected lands. It’s for this reason that the Cherokee sometimes called ginseng a’tali-guli or “the mountain climber” as ginseng seems to be only found higher up the mountain each year. Ginseng holds a unique place in the endangered plant world as it crosses into the culturally significant category as well. You see it isn’t just Asian cultures who utilized ginseng, but Native American tribes as well.

So, how do we protect and conserve a culturally significant plant species that is glorified in TV shows and faces increasing threats from white tail browsing and climate change? In 1975, wild American ginseng was added to Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES). However, a dried root is difficult to trace back to wild vs cultivated origins and, therefore, ginseng root is exported in larger volumes than any other native CITES plant species. Some National Parks have begun dyeing plants with reddish dye that is visible only under black light, but to tint every wild plant is impossible. Research on ginseng is occurring at universities across the southeast to find more effective ways to grow it, harvest it, and protect it. Botanical gardens, arboreta, and nature reserves have worked to secure ginseng to be held in ex-situ (non-wild) collections for safe-guarding and placed seeds into seed vaults in case future reintroductions are needed. But collections are not substitutions for the wild populations that once covered our mountains. The mountains are high, and the valleys are low, but we hope that by addressing this issue and working together, we are equipped to prevent the otherwise inevitable and save a species that has always been a part of the culture of the Southern Appalachians.