Penn State botanists get state grant to study ginseng in Pennsylvania

About 200,000 ginseng plants like this one are harvested in Pennsylvania forests each year for their roots. Nearly a third of those are grown from seeds planted by collectors, according to Penn State researchers, who will use a grant from the state to try to find out just how wild the "wild" ginseng crop is. The answer will have implications for conservation and management. Credit: Eric Burkhart / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Two Penn State botanists have received a grant from Pennsylvania to study wild ginseng population genetics, morphology and human influence through seed planting in the state.

Eric Burkhart, associate teaching professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management in the College of Agricultural Sciences, and Sarah Nilson, assistant professor of biology at Penn State Beaver, are receiving $45,000 from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to learn how wild Pennsylvania’s “wild” ginseng really is. The funding comes through the department’s Wild Resources Conservation Program.

Ginseng roots like these cultivated in a Pennsylvania forest are commonly touted for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Some believe they can also help regulate blood sugar levels, have benefits for some cancers, strengthen the immune system as well as providing other health benefits. As such, they are in great demand. Credit: Eric Burkhart / Penn StateCreative Commons

Director of Appalachian botany and ethnobotany at Penn State’s Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, Burkhart has conducted research on American ginseng in the Northeast for more than a decade. The plant, Panax quinquefolius, is one of the most popular native, nontimber forest products in Pennsylvania.

An average of 1,000 pounds of roots are reported on ginseng buyer transaction forms each year, equivalent to 200,000 plants harvested. In collaboration with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, Burkhart and colleagues have used an annual ginseng seller survey instrument since 2012 to document the contributions of public ginseng planting efforts to the “wild” harvest in Pennsylvania as part of an overall conservation strategy.

“On average, 30% of survey respondents report selling ginseng that they grew from seed or transplants as ‘wild,’” Burkhart said. “We will collaborate to conduct a two-year, interdisciplinary project that will inform management and conservation of American ginseng within the commonwealth. Our work should reveal how wild Pennsylvania wild ginseng populations really are.”

The Penn State study will use already identified and tested microsatellite markers to examine genetic diversity within and among 30 American ginseng populations known to occur on public and private lands throughout Pennsylvania with different cultivation histories. Burkhart’s team will use these markers to examine the genetic structure of the Pennsylvania ginseng population and to determine the level of introgression of cultivated ginseng stock into wild populations. 

Many ginseng collectors plant seeds like these in forests. Researchers will work with Pennsylvania ginseng forest farmers to understand what happens over time when cultivated stock “naturalizes” on forestlands and to develop best practices for introducing commercially available planting stock in forested areas. Credit: Eric Burkhart / Penn StateCreative Commons

The team also will work with Pennsylvania ginseng forest farmers to understand what happens over time when cultivated stock “naturalizes” on forestlands and to develop best practices for introducing commercially available planting stock in forested areas, while conserving remaining genetic diversity and uniqueness in existing wild populations. 

“Our team also will analyze plant vouchers and digitized herbarium specimens to investigate variation in leaf, stem and seed morphology in wild and introduced or cultivated populations,” Burkhart said. “That will allow us to see if we can identify any traits that could be used in the field to help determine cultivated lineages of genetic materials in forested environments.” 

Finally, the team will continue its annual mail-based surveys of ginseng sellers begun in 2012, funded by the Wild Resources Conservation Program, for two more years to continue to inform the Bureau of Forestry about public involvement in ginseng planting and husbandry within Pennsylvania, and to assist with interpretation of trade harvest data and trends. 

Last Updated March 01, 2021