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The taming of Pa.'s most lucrative wild plant

Plus, fish cake hot dogs and Fred Durst.


September 2, 2022
Inside this edition: Town and country, Haring's house, Will-adelphia, Bottle Works, easy breezy, trash talk, and an American ginseng story.

Czechoslovakia, the former nation, was created in what Pennsylvania city? 

(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)

» One thing worth knowing: A "Radiant Baby" by artist Keith Haring that was found by the new occupants of his childhood home in Kutztown is going up for auction, via WHYY. Bidding starts at $20,000.

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The highly prized ginseng root. (Eugene Kim / Flickr)

It’s there, a fortune peeking through the topsoil. Most of us would walk right past it.

For a few months every year in Pennsylvania — Sept. 1 to Nov. 30 — an unassuming plant, American ginseng, and its highly lucrative roots are legally plucked from the ground by pickers keenly aware of its value: hundreds of dollars a pound or, in extreme cases, thousands of dollars a piece.

The prized medicinal plant found scattered across the floors of Pennsylvania’s forests has made people rich or outlaws and, devotees insist, healed the sick. 

It’s been harvested here for centuries, helping to build the fortunes of John Jacob Astor, Birdsboro frontiersman Daniel Boone, and feed Appalachian families in the Long Depression that followed the Civil War, Luke Manget, author of Ginseng Diggers, explained.

“As soon as the U.S. declared independence they sent a ship to China loaded down with ginseng,” Manget added. “It helped establish those trade relations.”

Conservation efforts and restrictions followed the “green gold rush,” but the slow-growing plant has continued to decline. It is currently listed as “vulnerable” to overharvesting in Pennsylvania. 

And that scarcity has fueled the rise of a futuristic-sounding-but-simple act of state-endorsed engineering: the wild simulation, or forest farming. 

Ginseng from above. (Wendell Smith / Flickr)

“Wild-simulated” ginseng is grown in a wild setting — privately owned forest lands, for example — but planted by humans with seeds, the same found in the berries atop the plant’s leafy crown, though many are purchased from vendors online. 

“We’re encouraging people to have their own patch,” botanist Chris Firestone of Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources told National Geographic. “Because then they’re not out taking it.”

While some experts believe forest farming or “conservation through cultivation” is the ancient herb’s best long-term hope, there was almost no way of knowing how commonplace the practice was until a Penn State botanist named Eric Burkhart launched a years-long confidential study of Pennsylvania’s ginseng sellers to find out.

“We learned that somewhere approaching three-in-10 people at this point are saying that when they sell the ginseng they're not necessarily reporting it as wild-simulated for a variety of reasons, but nevertheless it’s something that they planted,” Burkhart said. “So there's no doubt that this practice is catching on. How long it's been going on is unclear.”

Burkhart said the real number could be as high as five-in-ten. 

The reluctance to openly identify wild-simulated ginseng as such stems, in part, from the fact that buyers — almost all of them in China and South Korea — place a premium on roots grown without human interference. (Completely wild or “spontaneous” ginseng is the most sought-after form, but wild-simulated ginseng can pass, as long as no one knows.) 

Several harvesters declined on-the-record interviews with PA Local.

Ginseng farming can’t happen just anywhere either. The herb is best suited for the shady slopes of forest lands, and in Pennsylvania, where most forest land is privately owned, that means private property. (No ginseng harvesting is allowed on public lands here.) 

Private landowners might plant a patch themselves, or strangers might use their land to do so without their permission or knowledge. “Property ownership boundaries are not necessarily the most important thing to a guerilla ginseng planter,” Burkhart explained. 

Poachers remain a common concern, especially in light of news stories like this. But some scientists are also worried that forest farming won't be widespread or fast enough to offset the impacts of non-sustainable (and often untracked) wild harvests in a truly meaningful way. 

If it is, there's the added hurdle of improperly sourced seeds from outside Appalachia that could muddy the plant's gene pool here and make the species less resilient, and the benefits less genuine over time. 

“We’re hoping to come up with a plan for preserving what genetic stock is left out there that is truly local or regionally adapted material, and figure out how we get that into nursery production or seed banking or some kind of cryopreservation state,” Burkhart said.  “It’s a slow and tedious process and from my standpoint it’s not going quickly enough.”

Burkhart knows that as long as ginseng remains valuable, the harvests won’t stop. (Of eight monitored wild ginseng plots on DCNR land, he said six were wiped out by poachers in recent years.)

He also knows that forest farming could dominate ginseng production in the not-so-distant future, adding: “We’re going to need that planting stock to get that industry going and make sure it is well-adapted. We need to propagate and protect what’s left.”

Pennsylvania has a dealer licensing program for ginseng. Of the 19 U.S. states that actively export the plant, Pennsylvania's above-board production ranks somewhere in the middle. 

But last year’s total harvest here was a record low at roughly 600 pounds, a fraction of the 3,500-pound high reached in 1990, the year after record-keeping began.

Burkhart isn’t sure what to make of it. He wonders if it’s yet another sign of the plant’s continued decline, or a sign that segments of the historically secretive industry are going back underground.

Colin Deppen, PA Local editor

A tabletop jukebox at Ritter's Diner in Pittsburgh, a throwback itself, photographed by yours truly. Send us your photos, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.

The former European nation of Czechoslovakia was founded in Pittsburgh. 

In 1918, at the end of World War I, two countries, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, began to eye a prosperity-minded merger. 

The document that formally declared their intent to join was signed in downtown Pittsburgh's now-former Loyal Order of Moose Building.

Why Pittsburgh? Martin Votruba, head of Slavic studies at Pitt, told WESA in 2017 that it owed to Allegheny County's extraordinarily high percentage of people who claim Slovak heritage and the lobbying that Slovak Americans and Czech Americans did on behalf of the change.

Czechoslovakia ultimately dissolved in 1992, 74 years after The Pittsburgh Agreement was signed.  

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