The Roots and Remedies of Ginseng Poaching
“My mom’s up in heaven saying, ‘This is a bad idea, getting into this truck with this man.’”
This thought crossed Randi Pokladnik’s mind as she climbed into a “rickety-rackety pickup” with a stranger. It was just one of many adventures Pokladnik had while researching her 2008 PhD dissertation at Antioch University, “Roots and Remedies of Ginseng Poaching in Central Appalachia.”
The man was ginseng grower and expert Syl Yunker, and he turned out to be not only trustworthy but a wealth of information on American ginseng in Kentucky and around the region. He was one of the many individuals Pokladnik interviewed for her research, some more reluctant than others.
“I interviewed one person off the record,” she recalled. “He said that he didn’t know he was on someone else’s land [when he poached some ginseng]. It’s hard to interview anyone who knows they are doing something illegally or took something that didn’t belong to them.”
Ginseng “poaching,” or harvesting illegally from private property, protected public land, or out of season, can be extremely lucrative if you know what you’re doing and disregard the threat of arrest, fines, and jail time. One notorious repeat offender who dug illegally in the vast wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was caught with hundreds of roots in the mid-2010s. Many more are never caught.
Everyone associated with American ginseng—harvesters, growers, traders, regulators, or conservationists—agrees that poaching is a huge problem in the Appalachian region. Not only is stealing wild ginseng highly destructive to the plant’s forest habitat, but poachers often steal from patches grown or stewarded intentionally on private land. Ginseng is slow growing, taking up to eighteen months to come up from seed—if wild turkeys or other pests do not gobble up the seed first. A ginseng patch grown in forest conditions takes, at the very least, five more years to produce marketable roots.
All of this time investment, and the hard work of planting and tending, can be wiped out by poachers in a matter of hours—thousands of dollars of potential income gone in a heartbeat, with little hope of recovering any damages. Larry Harding, who grows ginseng in forested land near his home in Friendship, Maryland, has been plagued by poachers. Despite the prosecution of one poacher caught on his land, leading to jail time and a court order to pay Harding $60,000, he is yet to see any restitution.
Growing and harvesting ginseng is often a family activity. Such is the case for Pokladnik: “My grandma Rose and her sister Zana were from Appalachia. They were root diggers themselves.”
They also foraged for wild foods to supplement meals. Her family never owned any property where ginseng and other useful wild plants would have grown, so she speculates that they dug it off others’ properties—“with or without permission.” In other words, today they might be considered poachers. But just a generation or two ago, people still had a sense of common land. “People pretty much roamed everywhere. There weren’t fences and borders.”
While her interest in the topic had a personal element, Pokladnik knew the research methodology for her dissertation needed to eliminate subjectivity. After extensive historical research on ginseng poaching, she began her field research.
She adopted a “Q-Sort” methodology developed in the 1930s by British psychologist William Stephenson to acquire purely individual opinions about a subject without preconceived predictions by the researcher. In Pokladnik’s case, she used this as a tool in determining how a wide swath of members of the ginseng community perceive illegal harvesting of ginseng roots.
She first interviewed twenty-six individuals in the region to establish opinions and concerns. She also consulted a typology of wildlife poaching developed by scholars Robert Muth and John Bowe. She compiled thirty-four statements typed on cards. A small sampling of the statements shows the wide range of opinions from her interviewees:
- “There are areas where different pieces of property butt up against each other and people innocently stray onto someone else’s land.”
- “Poaching ginseng is just another avenue to obtain illegal money, like shoplifting.”
- “Mountaintop mining [by coal companies] is the worst form of poaching; it’s poaching from the next generation.”
After the initial interviews, Pokladnik assembled a group of stakeholders, carefully chosen to include a geographic reach of seven states in the Appalachian region, and an age range from 24 to 84 years old. Of the 23 participants, nine were women. They included law enforcement and legal professionals, ginseng gatherers/growers, and buyers. Participants were instructed to read through the cards and rank them in the order they most agreed with, creating a hierarchy of opinions. Pokladnik constructed a large board to post the cards in nine different categories. (Unfortunately, the board has been recycled and no photos exist, but visions of Pokladnik toting it around to meet with participants provides a glimpse into her devotion to her research.)
Using computer software, Pokladnik processed the data she gathered from the participants. She determined four main “factors or perspectives” from the Q methodology:
- Factor A is the belief that historical views of harvesting, land ownership, and ideas about the commons contribute to poaching.
- Factor B feels that poachers are basically criminals who ignore laws and are out to make money from ginseng poaching.
- Factor C believes that poaching is a result of inadequate policies and methods of intervention.
- Factor D holds the opinion that ginseng poaching is a symptom of socioeconomic issues in the region such as poverty and drug addiction.
The four viewpoints were presented by Pokladnik at two public meetings of ginseng stakeholders in 2008, one in Ohio and one in Pennsylvania. She gathered surveys from the participants at these meetings and found that, “while some of those surveyed could distinctly choose one perspective, many people chose two, and some people believed all four applied.”
In a presentation to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in February 2009, Pokladnik illustrated these four factors using quotations from participants:
Factor A: Historical Traditional View
“Generations of local people in West Virginia have become accustomed to treating the land as a commons, roaming over boundaries and property lines without attention being paid to the true owners. They think what they find in the woods is in fact theirs regardless of who owns the title or deed to that land.”
Factor B: Poachers Are Criminals View
“Poaching is taking wildlife or ginseng illegally, and it is theft whether it was illegally from private property or stealing from the people of the State of Ohio. It’s a violation of wildlife laws which we have authority on. The 2006 price paid for wild ginseng in Ohio was about $450 a pound, making it worth much more than poaching a deer.”
Factor C: Lack of Legal Repercussions View
“Often they [the poachers] just get it for trespassing, and then it’s in the newspaper. The grower is penalized because others will poach him too. Judges don’t take it seriously. There are no real teeth in the regulations, even when it involves theft of plants out of season or on public lands or between states.”
Factor D: Poverty View
“When it comes to absentee landowners like coal and timber companies, poor people are being colonized much like people are being colonized in Africa. People are dirt poor and can’t get enough to eat, and the riches of the land aren’t being shared. If the absentee landowner isn’t interested in it [ginseng], why can’t others have access to it?”
As Pokladnik states in the concluding chapter of her dissertation, “Members of the ginseng community have a divergence of opinion about what actions constitute poaching or the characteristics of a poacher and ways to stop poaching.” In short, her carefully researched, wide-ranging, and comprehensive study can be summarized by recognizing that ginseng poaching is a complex and nuanced issue. It involved many stakeholders, all of whom Pokladnik feels should work together to tackle the problem.
What, if anything, has changed surrounding the issue of ginseng poaching since Pokladnik completed her dissertation in 2008?
Recent articles addressing the problem, and our own field research with ginseng stakeholders, reveal the problem is as serious and complex as ever. Recent efforts to stem poaching range from marking roots with an indelible orange powder to employing ginseng sniffing dogs. Still, despite threats of stiff fines and jail time, ginseng theft is still rampant.
One recent factor in this trend may be the History Channel series Appalachian Outlaws, which originally aired in 2014 and 2015 and is still available online. Many people believe it alerted a wide audience to ginseng’s monetary value and romanticized poaching.
Another factor is the major societal problem of opioid, methamphetamine, and heroin abuse in many parts of rural America, including Appalachia. People take desperate measures to finance addictions. Ginseng roots are dug—often out of season and/or before the plant has legally matured at five years old—and sold to unscrupulous herb dealers to get money quickly, and are even sometimes exchanged directly for drugs.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pokladnik observes that more people are getting outdoors and foraging for wild foods and useful plants—hopefully legally. But time will tell. Adverse economic effects may cause more people to hunt for and dig the lucrative plant for income, wherever and whenever they can find it.
“Fall is the big season, and the plant turns pale green with red berries and is easier to see,” she says. “We will see if poaching becomes more of an issue.”
While the goal of Pokladnik’s study was to understand attitudes toward ginseng poaching, she also identified a number of possible interventions that could help reduce illegal harvesting. These included improvements in prevention methods used by ginseng growers; the recognition of ginseng as an agricultural crop, with an official and widespread certification program; and education about ginseng’s importance for all ages and experience levels, from law enforcement officers to school children.
Understanding the cultural, economic, and environmental importance of the plant, she feels, helps change attitudes toward poaching. People still, all too often, discount the importance of protecting a mere plant.
“There was a guy who was picked up for deer poaching, and they were ready to throw the book at him,” Pokladnik recounts. “But, when they poach ginseng, they just look at you and say, ‘Really? A root? You’re bringing someone to court because they dug up somebody’s root?’”
Fostering a connection to the land should start early, in her opinion. Fewer families go ginseng hunting together, passing along good stewardship practices across the generations.
“Kids have lost that connection to the land, that I had when I grew up.” At least partially because of her interest in native plants, her own son spent hours in the woods as a child and studied botany in college. “We’ve got to get people caring. It won’t matter if we don’t instill a sense of love and compassion.”
Amid the pandemic, Pokladnik sees a chance to reset our connection to the natural world.
“We cannot return to what we thought was normal,” she concludes. “We must create a new normal, and finding our way back to the land is one way.”
Betty Belanus is a folklorist, curator, and education specialist at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is the director of the project American Ginseng: Local Knowledge, Global Roots.
Justin Sisk is an intern at the Center and a recent graduate in anthropology from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He has been researching American ginseng with an emphasis on ginseng regulations and poaching.
Arlene Reiniger assisted with research and editing. Many thanks to Randi Pokladnik for sharing her research and her current viewpoints on American ginseng culture and conservation.