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Dodging the law, scouring forests for...ginseng?

A new breed of ginseng diggers are looking to parlay rising Asian demand for the increasingly rare plant's roots into a fast buck. Amid a sluggish economy, police say, more poachers are seeking out wild ginseng, ripping up even the smallest plants and ignoring property lines.

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Ed McCann, a warden with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, stands near a property where the DNR caught someone suspected of digging wild ginseng root illegally.

Carrie Antlfinger/AP/File

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They slink through the woods in camouflage and face paint, armed with tire irons, screwdrivers and hoes, seeking a plant that looks like a cross between a Virginia creeper and poison ivy.

They're the new breed of ginseng diggers, a rough and tumble lot looking to parlay rising Asian demand for the increasingly rare plant's roots into a fast buck.

Amid a sluggish economy, police say, more diggers are pushing into the backcountry from the upper Mississippi River to the Smoky Mountains in search of wild ginseng, eschewing harvest permits, ripping up even the smallest plants and ignoring property lines.

Their slash-and-burn tactics have left property owners enraged and biologists worried about the slow-growing plant's long-term survival. In Ohio prosecutors charged one landowner with gunning down a man he believed was stealing ginseng.

"We're not finding big, healthy populations. It was there, and a lot of it has been taken," said Nora Murdock, an ecologist with the National Park Service who monitors plant populations in four parks across the southeastern U.S. "It's like taking bricks out of a building. You might not feel the first brick ... but sooner or later you're going to pull out too many."

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