Ginseng is a perennial herb that has been used for medicinal purposes in China and other Asian countries for centuries. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is native to the rich hardwood forests of Canada and the eastern half of the United States, including Kentucky. Today Kentucky leads the nation in wild ginseng production. While wild American ginseng is not yet considered endangered, it is protected by federal and state laws. Because ginseng regulations are subject to change, the State Ginseng Coordinator in the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA) should be contacted for the latest laws and restrictions. Additionally, laws will vary from state to state; the information in this profile is pertinent to Kentucky only.
The market for ginseng is well-established; however, the harvest and sale of all ginseng is strictly regulated in Kentucky. Ginseng harvested in the state can only be sold through dealers licensed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. A list of dealers can be obtained from the KDA. Kentucky is one of 19 states with an approved ginseng export program. Ginseng harvested in Kentucky cannot be transported out-of-state in any manner unless it is accompanied by an export certificate obtained from the KDA. Ginseng for international trade must also be accompanied by a phytosanitary certificate from the USDA and a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) export certificate obtained from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These regulations are in place to protect the limited stock of wild ginseng growing in the forests, and to help eliminate the theft problems that can occur with this valuable and very slow-growing plant.
Kentucky State Law recognizes four production methods for ginseng: wild, wild-simulated, woods-grown, and cultivated. While wild ginseng grows with little or no human involvement, the other three methods are technically different cultivation systems that necessitate human involvement in some way. Cultivation is a way to meet the market demand without endangering or reducing current native wild populations. Wild ginseng grows naturally in the forest. Ginseng thrives in deeply shaded woodlands where the soil is moist, well drained, and high in organic matter. Plants require 70 percent to 80 percent shade and are often found growing under such deeply rooted hardwoods as oak, hickory, beech, and walnut.