Ginseng, a long-stemmed plant with five leaves and distinctive red berries, long has been coveted in many Asian cultures because the plant's gnarly, multipronged root is believed to have medicinal properties that help improve everything from memory to erectile dysfunction. And the wild roots are believed to be more potent than cultivated roots.
The plant takes years to mature, and it has been harvested to the edge of extinction in China. Ginseng buyers have turned to North America, where the plant can be found from northeastern Canada through the eastern U.S.
Conscious of the harvesting pressure, the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora imposed restrictions on exports in 1975. Under those terms, states certify ginseng has been harvested legally and exporters must obtain a federal permit. Most states have restricted ginseng harvest to a few months in the fall and require diggers to obtain permits during that period. It's illegal to harvest ginseng from any national park and most national forests in the southeast.
The price of wild ginseng roots has climbed in the last decade. Now domestic buyers pay $500 to $600 per pound compared with about $50 per pound of cultivated roots. Law enforcement officials say the prices have pushed people looking for quick money into the woods.
"It's lucrative to spend a day in the woods and walk out with $500 of ginseng in a bag when you don't have a job," said Wisconsin conservation warden Ed McCann. "Every one of these plants is like looking at a $5 or $10 bill."