Ginseng decline in Appalachia? Bridging the science, history, and politics

Authors: Justine Law*, Sonoma State University
Topics: Human-Environment Geography
Keywords: forest management, Appalachia, ginseng, critical physical geography
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Diplomat Room, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is a widespread but rare understory herb in Appalachian forests. It is also the most valuable medical plant in North America. Indeed, for hundreds of years, ginseng “hunting” has been a part of Appalachia’s cultural heritage, and the sale of wild ginseng still supplements incomes throughout the region. Increasingly, however, ginseng hunters are portrayed as poor environmental stewards who are sending ginseng populations into a downward spiral, and, as a result, they are losing access to the remaining forest commons: state and national forestlands. In this research, I aim to trouble this bleak environmental decline narrative. Drawing on archival documents, ecological data, and contemporary ginseng policy debates, I show that: (a) concerns about ginseng decline have been a constant component of Appalachian discourse; (b) ginseng populations have, historically, been quite resilient; and (c) where ginseng populations are declining, it is most likely due to factors other than—or, at least, broader than—harvest by ginseng hunters.

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