HARRISONBURG, Va. -- A James Madison University associate professor and a student are studying American ginseng with an eye toward developing a plan to restore the plant in the wild.Ginseng, a long-stemmed plant with five leaves and distinctive red berries, long has been coveted in many Asian cultures because the plant's gnarly, multipronged root is believed to have medicinal properties that help improve everything from memory to erectile dysfunction. And the wild roots are believed to be more potent than cultivated roots.The plant takes years to mature, and it has been harvested to the edge of extinction in China. Ginseng buyers have turned to North America, where the plant can be found from northeastern Canada through the eastern U.S."Currently, it is overharvested in Appalachia, including the Shenandoah Valley. Through field and greenhouse trials, we hope to learn about the ecology of American ginseng in order to create a restoration plan," Emily Thyroff, a junior biology major at JMU, told The Daily News-Record (http://bit.ly/1enUCvj
Thyroff and associate biology professor Heather Griscom began the field trial in West Virginia last summer and the greenhouse trial at JMU last fall. Both sets of trials include two different soil moistures and three different soils that are common in Virginia and West Virginia, Thyroff said."By understanding soil moisture and type of American ginseng better, we can restore it to areas that give it a good chance of successfully inhabiting," she said.The Virginia General Assembly declared wild ginseng a threatened species in 2008. Last year, the state adopted new regulations aimed at ensuring wild ginseng survives in the state. The changes included pushing back the opening of the harvesting season from Aug. 15 to Sept. 1.West Virginia's harvesting season also opens Sept. 1.In both states, only ginseng that's at least 5 years old can be harvested. Both states also prohibit harvesting wild ginseng that has fewer than three prongs.Thyroff said she and Griscom decided to study ginseng because it's a local nontimber forest product and it's valuable.Wild ginseng can sell for $300 to $700 a pound, Griscom said.