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Bringing ginseng back to northern Michigan

American ginseng
Grady Zuiderveen
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is a state-threatened plant in Michigan.

American ginseng is a threatened species in Michigan. The U.S. Forest Service is looking to assist its recovery.

American ginseng is a state threatened species in Michigan, but efforts are underway to restore the rare plant in the Huron-Manistee National Forests.

Its nationwide decline is due in part to harvesting by poachers, who sell the root through an international black market. To protect it from poaching in Michigan, specific locations of the plants are blacked out on published botanical surveys.

Grady Zuiderveen is a botanist with the U.S. Forest Service. He explained that the root is highly valued in China for its medicinal value.

“In traditional Asian cultures, it’s said it balances the ying and yang,” said Zuiderveen. “Which makes it highly valuable.”

So valuable that the species of ginseng native to Asia became scarce after thousands of years of human harvesting.

“So, in turn, they’ve turned to American ginseng to meet some of that demand,” Zuiderveen said.

That demand fuels an international black market, attracting poachers to the plant. That’s especially true in the American southeast.
But experts say that ginseng poaching probably isn’t happening much here in Michigan. Ginseng’s local decline is more likely due to loss of habitat, a warming climate and over-browsing by deer.

Even though there’s not much of a poaching scene, the plant does have significance to the people here. The Intertribal Council of Michigan represents the interests of the state's twelve federally recognized tribes. The council put ginseng on a list of threatened species with cultural importance, and presented that list to the Forest Service.

Frank Beaver, the director of Natural Resources for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, hasn’t harvested ginseng himself. But he’s aware of the plant’s significance.

“Folks are pretty private about their harvesting,” Beaver said. “It’s something that I know is very important, but our folks are a little tight-lipped about it.”

Beaver added that a lot is at stake when it comes to threatened species with cultural value.

"You could lose that relationship, and the methods for harvesting," Beaver said. "If it’s not there, then that knowledge can even be lost."

After receiving the list of species from the Intertribal Council, the U.S. Forest Service began looking into ways to bolster ginseng’s population.

Zuiderveen and his colleague Rich Corner are part of a ginseng restoration project. The first step is to assess what the current distribution and population of the plant is; and that requires lots of searching of the forest floor.

Rich Corner and Grady Zuiderveen on a meander survey
Patrick Shea
Rich Corner and Grady Zuiderveen on a meander survey

The botanists use a method called a meander survey. First, they revisit locations where plants were observed in the past. Over the last century, pressed samples of ginseng were stored in plant collections—usually at universities. Those old samples include the general area where the plant was found, which gives botanists a good place to start.

Once they’re in the right area, they look for associated species. Ginseng prefers nutrient-rich soils, beneath stands of mesic hardwood forests. Plants like maidenhair fern and jack-in-the-pulpit serve as indicators that ginseng might be nearby.

Ultimately, planting ginseng seed will be the most promising method of restoring the threatened species to the woods of northern Michigan. But the Forest Service isn’t rushing into plant efforts.

A similar project in Pennsylvania involved giving bags of ginseng seeds to deer hunters, and asking them to scatter it around the woods.

But because Michigan is on the edge of ginseng’s habitat range, local populations of the plant may have some unique genetic traits that the Forest Service wants to preserve.

Rich Corner finding American Ginseng, summer 2020.
Grady Zuiderveen
Rich Corner finding American Ginseng, summer 2020.

“This is going to be a process,” said forest ecologist Rich Corner. “Our responsibility, I think, is to reintroduce it in the right ecological context, with the right genotypic material.”

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Patrick Shea was a natural resources reporter at Interlochen Public Radio. Before joining IPR, he worked a variety of jobs in conservation, forestry, prescribed fire and trail work. He earned a degree in natural resources from Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, and his interest in reporting grew as he studied environmental journalism at the University of Montana's graduate school.