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By James Banks
American ginseng was "discovered" in North America by a French Jesuit missionary named Father Joseph Francis Lafitau in 1716 near Montreal, Canada (Persons 1986). He had heard of this wondrous plant through the writings of another Jesuit priest, Father Jartoux, who had observed the use of Asian ginseng in Manchuria. Since the forest types and climate of Manchuria and southern Canada were so similar, Father Lafitau hypothesized that ginseng might grow in North America. Soon after its discovery ginseng was being dug by the native North Americans, purchased by French fur traders and exported to China. Even today many fur dealers in New York and elsewhere are also ginseng dealers. Ginseng and furs were the new world's very first exports.
Ginseng was discovered in western New England in 1750 and in 1751 in central New York, Massachusetts and Vermont. John Jacob Astor of the American Fur Company financed one of the first American shipments to China in the late 1700's and it has been widely reported that ginseng started the Astor fortune (Persons 1986). Daniel Boone gathered and purchased for export twelve tons of ginseng in 1788 in Kentucky. In 1858, 366,053 pounds of ginseng was exported according to the United States Department of Commerce and Labor (Harding 1972). Between 1858 and 1901 ginseng exports averaged 278,000 pounds per year. Prices paid for the dried roots during this time ranged from 52 cents per pound in 1858 to $5.38 per pound in 1901 with an average price of $2.50 (Harding 1913). During this time period almost all ginseng was gathered from wild populations. Obviously, this situation would not last indefinitely.
In the early 1880's a New York State Ginseng Association was formed with George Stanton serving as President. Mr. Stanton is now widely recognized as the Father of the Cultivated Ginseng Industry (Williams 1957). In 1904 Liberty Hyde Bailey, then director of the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station wrote "New York is one of the leading states in the growing of ginseng. Considering the value of the New York product and the attention given to the plant, it is not improbable that New York leads the states" (Van Hook 1904).
Ginseng farming became quite common throughout much of its native range at the turn of the 20th century as the supplies of wild roots disappeared due to over-harvesting. Between 1906 and 1970 ginseng exports averaged 215,000 pounds per year (Harding 1972) with only one year showing a significant decline (1951) due, most likely, to the Korean war. Even that year exports still amounted to 77,000 pounds.
In 1977 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began to implement the internationally approved CITES treaty. CITES stands for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species which lists ginseng as one of many plant and animal species that need protection. (Persons 1986) Ginseng now needs to be certified as to whether it is wild or cultivated and states must adopt a conservation program to allow any harvest of the wild roots. Nineteen states now certify all ginseng exports as to wild or cultivated. Between 1988 and 1993 the average certified export of wild ginseng amounted to 158,000 pounds per year nationally with Kentucky and Tennessee leading the states averaging 23,666 and 17,833 pounds respectively. During that same period of time exports of cultivated ginseng averaged 1,341,000 pounds per year, however, the overwhelming majority of the cultivated crop came from one state, Wisconsin, which averaged 1,317,000 pounds. Almost al of the cultivated Wisconsin ginseng grown under artificial shade (Pritts 1995).