Someone asked me yesterday about how ginseng stewardship benefits the landowner. It stumped me at first, because I’d never considered it from that angle.
What is Stewardship?
To steward something is to manage or take care of something. The short answer to this post’s question is that stewardship really only benefits the landowner if they want to have a long-term relationship with ginseng.
The word “relationship” is key to the true meaning of that answer, as you’ll begin to understand when I describe what I consider to be ginseng stewardship, farther down the page.
Obviously, it benefits the ginseng for someone to think of it as a long-term resident and not just as a root occupying space in their forest for the next 5-10 years.
How Does Ginseng Stewardship “Work”?
In this example, I’m talking about wild-simulated ginseng, and not ginseng grown as a woodland crop that is tended in the way a gardener tends vegetables. The wild-simulated ginseng will generally be left to fend for itself once the seed is planted. Stewardship comes into play the moment you decide to give it, and the future generations of it, space in the forest to call home – not just a 5-year lease on a plot of ground in the woods to be terminated en masse at will.
The Wild Ozark Stewardship Plan
If a landowner begins planting ginseng in year 1, then plants every year thereafter, in 7-10 years it would be a good time to start digging roots. It’s legal in 5, but the roots are still small then. Let’s just say you wait 10 years and each year you planted seeds. By the time year 10 rolls around, the ones you planted for the first 7 years will be flowering and producing seeds and offspring (they begin reproducing in year 3). If you did this without fail each year, barring a disaster of some sort, you’d have quite a lot of ginseng growing and reproducing.
Now when you harvest in year 10, only take ½ or less of each colony’s reproducing adult plants. Each colony should have at least 100 plants total (of mixed ages). Replant the seeds from the ones you harvest. Done in this way you will always have ginseng for the rest of your life and the lives of your children and your grandchildren because the colonies would be self-sustaining and taking your percentage won’t cause them to decline until all you have is a few.
Here on our property, the suitable spots aren’t large enough to plant full acres worth. Each spot is a little microclimate of perfect conditions, and the largest area like this is only a few thousand square feet at most.
So we plant these pockets as we find them, if there isn’t already ginseng on them (it’s my attempt to avoid genetic pollution). We haven’t started harvesting our own roots yet; we’re still on the 10-year plan and only dig a few for personal use. The ones we planted several years ago are now reproducing and we’re replanting those seeds in the same colonies and in a few more years those spots will all be ready for us to start harvesting a percentage of the reproducing plants.
Most of our forests had been logged at some point before we bought it and so they’re only just now beginning to recover and create stands suitable for ginseng again.
There are studies, (here’s a link to the abstract of one), that shows delaying harvest only a couple of weeks and taking only a certain percentage will lead to sustainability. I’ve read before that taking even 50% of the adult plants in a colony will not do it harm the sustainability of the colony if the seeds from those plants are planted back at the time of harvest in the same colony space.
The Setbacks that Can (and Do) Occur
However, you’ll also have to take into consideration the deer and poaching and other animal predation, or severe weather conditions that can take out a percentage of your colony. One year we had a pretty bad ice storm that took out the tops and felled of a lot of trees. In one of our largest good habitat areas (this one consisted of acres, actually, and not just little pockets) that had been planted, this destroyed the colonies because it let in too much sunlight and then the poison ivy and underbrush choked it all out. That ice storm would need to be factored in before deciding how many plants the colony could afford to lose in harvest. In this case it was none.
What is Not the Kind of Stewardship I Meant
Of course, people can and do plant and dig all of the reproducing legal adults from the beds they’ve established. And then replant, just like any other crop. Just like growing a tree farm that is clear-cut and replanted. This treats it more as an agricultural product, which just isn’t how I want to interact with our forests. In the strictest sense of the definition, this is still “stewardship”. But this isn’t the kind of stewardship I meant. What I had in mind was more… generous, I guess? There’s a word for it, I can’t think of it right now, though. I just prefer a more natural approach.
In the end, it seems stewardship does less to serve the person than it does to serve the thing being “stewarded”.
I suppose, if money is the bottom line, this may sound like bad business.
For Wild Ozark, though, and for those who enjoy participating in the kind ginseng stewardship I’ve outlined, it’s not just about the money.
It’s about stepping out of an anthropocentric worldview.
It’s about having a mutually beneficial relationship with the land.
Some of our books:
- American Ginseng & Companions (on DVD and USB, the most color photos of ginseng & companions in natural habitat you’ll find)
- Sustainable Ginseng (small book on how to grow and harvest it sustainably)
- DIY Ginseng & Habitat Site Assessment (small book to help you find great habitat)
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About the voice behind this blog, Madison Woods
I'm a creative old soul living way off the beaten path with my husband in the wild Ozark Mountains. Besides homesteading, growing plants & making crafty things and newsletters, I write books and stories. My rural fantasy fiction, written under the pen name, Ima Erthwitch, usually takes place in a much altered Ozarks.
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