It is believed that ginseng can provide an energy boost, lower blood sugar and cholesterol, reduce stress, treat diabetes, even stir things up in the bedroom. For thousands of years, the Chinese have used ginseng to cure ailments and increase vivacity. Unfortunately, its popularity as a panacea has devastated the plant’s populations in China. Today, it’s rare to find in the wild.
American ginseng is an ideal alternative: It grows throughout the eastern United States and thrives along the Appalachian Trail, especially on northern- and eastern-sloping shady woodlands. Wild American ginseng has been foraged for some 300 years, and now its populations, too, are threatened. Poachers are known to steal it from national parks to sell on the black market — a federal, if low-risk, crime. In the Smoky Mountains, which straddle the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, more than 4,600 ginseng roots have been confiscated since 2010 from people trying to make off with them. Nearly 50 arrests have been made, sometimes of repeat offenders. Countless more poachers get away with the deed.
“Roots get exported to Asia, where they can sell for anywhere from $200 to $900 a pound,” says Janet Rock, a park botanist at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “That’s where the big money is.”
Not all ginseng is black-market stuff, of course. There are ginseng farms that cultivate the roots and foragers who make an effort to harvest sustainably, digging only mature plants and only within ginseng season, which tends to be from September through December. At Posana, a restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina, whose menu has a hyperlocal focus, local ginseng is steeped in vodka for the Ginseng Sublime cocktail. Co-owner Martha Pollay, a meditation and yoga buff, has long believed in the healing properties of ginseng. She succeeded in convincing her husband, chef and co-owner Peter Pollay, to start using the root in the kitchen. The couple forages for it on their own property so you can sip without reservation.
Ginseng has a bitter, earthy flavor. Pollay combines the ginseng-infused vodka with red beet juice, maple syrup, lemon juice and cherry shrub for a sweet, rich and earthy sipper served in a rocks glass over ice. The Pollays are, of course, appalled at the decimation of wild ginseng populations. If anything, their innovative use of the root in a cocktail might serve to raise awareness of the poaching problem in North Carolina.
“Ginseng has a season,” says Peter Pollay. “It has bright red berries in the autumn that mindful foragers will replant to support future growth of this endangered species of flora. In most states, you cannot harvest a ginseng plant with less than three leaves, which ensures the plant is a minimum of five years old.”
Looking for ginseng in your own backyard? Several companion plants may tip you off to its presence. In particular, ginseng likes to cozy up to goldenseal, black cohosh and American spikenard. Of course, if you find these forest friends and no ginseng growing among them, now you know why.