The knotty politics of ginseng conservation and management in Appalachia



American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is a long-lived understory species in Appalachian forests and the most valuable medicinal plant in North America. Indeed, "digging" for ginseng roots is an important livelihood strategy throughout Appalachia. Increasingly, however, concern for ginseng populations is escalating, and state and federal policies have introduced new harvesting restrictions, as well as new law enforcement efforts that target ginseng diggers. Here I am interested in troubling the high-profile narrative that ginseng populations are crashing due to the unscrupulous practices of Appalachian diggers. I draw on ecological research, historical documents, and my own ethnographic fieldwork to argue that we need a fuller understanding of both ginseng population demographics and the potential causes for ginseng decline before we embrace a narrative that disenfranchises those who depend on and, in many cases, have helped steward this enigmatic plant. This research speaks to growing tensions between rural livelihoods and conservation efforts worldwide.

Keywords: political ecology, plant conservation, ginseng, forest livelihoods, Appalachia

How to Cite: Law, J. (2022) “The knotty politics of ginseng conservation and management in Appalachia”, Journal of Political Ecology. 29(1). doi: