The main problem with ginseng digging is that the plant takes years to mature but is so profitable that diggers harvest it illegally or in excess of permitted amounts. Ginseng has been harvested nearly to extinction in China, and biologists worry North America's supply could become extinct if these practices continue.
Ginseng is a long-stemmed plant with five leaves and distinctive red berries. It grows prolifically from northeastern Canada through the eastern United States. The plant is popular in Asian cultures because its gnarly, multi-pronged root supposedly cures many ailments, from memory loss to erectile dysfunction. While ginseng can be cultivated, it is believed the wild roots are far more potent.
Many states with large amounts of ginseng regulate when it can be harvested. Usually, these states limit harvesting to a few months in the fall, typically from Sept. 1 through Oct. 31. States also require diggers to obtain permits, and it is illegal to harvest from national parks and most national forests.
Common violations include harvesting before the season, harvesting immature plants, and trespassing and harvesting in proscribed areas, including state and national parks, preserves, recreation areas and private property.
Illegal harvesting is a big issue because ginseng is so profitable. Domestically, buyers pay $500 to $600 per pound of ginseng, and they purchase cultivated roots for around $50 per pound. Internationally, ginseng can draw up to $700 per pound.