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Supplies Of Valuable Ginseng Root Dwindling


The root ginseng is used to treat all kinds of ailments in traditional Chinese medicine. And some of the most valuable ginseng grows wild in Appalachia. Supplies are dwindling. So as Julia DeWitt from our Planet Money podcast reports, a backup plan is taking shape.

JULIA DEWITT, BYLINE: I drove out to the border of West Virginia and Maryland to visit a big-time ginseng dealer named Larry Harding.

There are security cameras pointing in every direction. I wonder if he can see me right now.

At the end of a long gravel road I come to a corrugated tin warehouse.

LARRY HARDING: Oh, I didn't see you. Come in.


Harding shows me into the office of his third-generation ginseng distribution business. It's like a ginseng museum. There are roots preserved in alcohol, ginseng in glass cases on little red pillows.

HARDING: When I was a little kid, dad, he'd always take us out and take us ginsenging.

DEWITT: Wild ginseng you forage, like how his dad taught Larry to do. That is the most valuable kind, but not dependable.

HARDING: There's not as much now as there was a while ago.

DEWITT: Foraging and habitat loss, Larry says. The obvious solution to just grow more ginseng hasn't exactly worked. Ginseng is cultivated in other parts of the country, but it comes out looking totally different than the Appalachian wild stuff, mostly because all the fertilizer big farms use. That ginseng is worth just a tenth of what wild goes for. So Harding and others in the Appalachian ginseng industry are trying a third way. Harding called it wild-simulated ginseng. He plants wild ginseng seeds in the woods, and then 10 or so years later he digs.

HARDING: To look at this root, there's actually not a dealer in the country that can say this don't look like wild ginseng.

DEWITT: That's the hope anyway.

ERIC BURKHART: Ginseng in particular represents a sustainable development crop for people to pursue.

DEWITT: This is Eric Burkhart. He's a plant scientist who works closely with ginseng growers like Harding to develop the industry. And, yes, he is a booster.

BURKHART: I feel like ginseng can save the world. You know, save Appalachia anyway. And, you know, people's health can be improved, their pocketbooks, the ecosystems that they're living in. You know, all these things. And we can build these connections with this trading partner halfway around the world.

DEWITT: There is not a whole lot of research that shows conclusively that wild makes the best medicine. But that doesn't affect the fact that people value it a lot more. Buyers just go on looks. So if Harding's sort of wild ginseng can pass the look test, it's a game changer.

FONG LAM: (Speaking Mandarin).

DEWITT: Fong Lam is a wild ginseng buyer four hours away in Bethlehem, Pa. He makes medication for Chinese medicine practitioners in the U.S. His daughter-in-law - her name's Catsy - translates.

CATSY: He collects the wild ginseng from different diggers and then he will make into capsules like that.

DEWITT: We do a little test. I hand him the root that Harding gave me. He carefully inspects it with a magnifying glass.

FONG: (Speaking Mandarin).

DEWITT: And he's not sure if it's wild or not. But, he says, nope, he wouldn't buy it.

FONG: (Speaking Mandarin).

DEWITT: Then I bring out another root, a truly wild root that Harding also gave me for reference.

Yeah. So these are...

CATSY: Oh, this better.

DEWITT: Oh, this is better?

CATSY: Much better. Yeah.

DEWITT: Oh, my God.

CATSY: Yeah.

DEWITT: And this root Fong Lam would buy.

FONG: (Speaking Mandarin).

CATSY: So if you have ginseng looking like this, he's willing to pay 800 per pound.

DEWITT: It's just part of ginseng that wild can't be faked easily. But Harding and the ginseng entrepreneurs of Appalachia are going to keep trying to simulate the wild. They have to. For NPR News, I'm Julia DeWitt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julia Dewitt