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Ginseng growers hope that New York's forests are enchanted

Charles Harrington, University Photography
Steven Roth, president of the North American Ginseng Association, and Louise Buck, coordinator of the Cornell Agroforestry Working Group, plant ginseng root in the understory of an upstate New York forest. It will be years before it is harvested.

Could an ancient plant rooted in thousands of years of Chinese tradition provide an economic boost to New York forest owners? A new cooperative team of researchers at Cornell University and the North American Ginseng Association is going to find out. Ginseng, the herbal remedy used by Chinese healers for more than 4,000 years, grows wild in New York, where growers are beginning to see a blossoming industry.

This ancient plant has been gaining new agricultural product importance over the past few years. Marketers are adding ginseng or its extract to such items as tea, cold beverages and dietary supplements as a medicinal aid or flavorant. This new research is an effort to learn more about wild American ginseng's micronutrient needs, how to increase its resistance to fungal attack and to find out more about whether the conditions in which it is grown affect its content of active ingredients, known as ginsenocides.

 

Funding comes from a three-year $45,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture Hatch grant, "Advancing Knowledge and Practice of Woods-Cultivated American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolium) in New York and the Northeast." Used as an herbal medicine for four millennia in Chinese culture, the wild American version grows well in forested sections of New York.

While ginseng has a reputation for its medicinal properties, growers beware: This gnarly, human-appearing root will not get you rich quick. It takes many years to cultivate. Patience, however, could pay off as wild American ginseng can fetch as much as $450 a pound.

"While there is lots of potential, there are associated risks," said Louise Buck, senior extension associate in the Department of Natural Resources and the coordinator of the Cornell Agroforestry Working Group. "Poachers and disease to the plant are two of the biggest threats to ginseng growers. Growers have to grow ginseng in total secrecy. Those who are successful are adding a high-value understory component to a managed forest system. Essentially, it's forest farming."

Artificially cultivated ginseng, which is grown under shade cloth in densely planted beds, fetches about $25 a pound, while woods-cultivated ginseng can sell for between $250 and $400 a pound. The wild-simulated approach to woods cultivation is more likely to produce the dark, gnarly, natural-looking roots that are so prized by ginseng aficionados and can fetch the highest commodity prices.

Buck said that the main factor in selling ginseng is its looks. The gnarlier the better, and New York's climate is suited for some of the best ginseng in North America, she said.

Cornell's venture into studying New York-grown wild American ginseng is rooted in history. At the turn of the this century, it was one of the state's most lucrative crops. Scientists at Cornell who will be joining Buck in studying this plant include: James Lassoie, Cornell professor of forest science and chair of Cornell's Department of Natural Resources; Todd E. Dawson, Cornell associate professor of ecological science; and Kenneth W. Mudge, Cornell associate professor of floriculture and ornamental horticulture. The group is cooperating closely with the North American Ginseng Association through its president, Steven Roth, and with Robert Beyfuss, Greene County cooperative extension agent.

"Ginseng has come into great prominence in this state. We are just beginning to learn how to grow it well," wrote Liberty Hyde Bailey in May 1904, when he was Cornell's director of the Agricultural Experiment Station in Ithaca. "Considering that the value of the New York product and the attention given to the plant, it is not improbable that New York leads the states. The interest in the plant is growing rapidly." Bailey was right, only he was just 93 years ahead of his time, because fungal disaster struck a few years later.

Around 1910, fungal disease all but obliterated the burgeoning agroforest production of ginseng in New York. Soil scientists and plant pathologists are just learning to grapple with the natural problems this plant faces. For example, Alternaria panax and root rot are two of the most devastating fungal blights that can afflict ginseng. It is also prone to "damping-off," which is a fungal disease usually caused by A. panax or Phytopthora cactorum.

It is the reputed health benefits and expanding demand for wild American ginseng worldwide that has caught the agroforesters' interest. Ginseng contains complex carbohydrates, called ginsenocides, that can, it is thought, help the central nervous system, balance metabolism, decrease blood sugar, increase body tone, stimulate the endocrine system and maintain hormone levels. It contains B-vitamins, folic acid, amino acids and certain minerals, like iron and zinc. Buck's research will lay the groundwork for establishing relationships between the potency of the ginsenosides that provide these benefits and the growing conditions of the plant. The study aims to help verify or disprove claims that wild ginseng is more beneficial than artificially cultivated, and that New York wild is among the most potent available. To make this determination, the study will examine roots from throughout ginseng's native range.

Wild American ginseng most often occurs on the northern faces of hardwood forests, from the Northeastern United States through the Midwest and as far south as Arkansas. The gnarly root produces a deciduous plant that can grow from 6 to 16 inches, flowering in the summer. The average wild ginseng plant lasts between eight and 15 years, and the root is harvested in its prime.

Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is hoping to boost agroforest production in New York, and this high-value understory crop offers tremendous potential for doing so, Buck said.

"Because wild ginseng is severely threatened by over-harvesting, future demand will be met increasingly from cultivated plants," she said. "By learning more about where and how to grow the most natural-looking and potent roots, New York forest owners stand to profit, while the quality of our forests are improved through more active management."