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Ginseng: Indiana’s rare, valuable root

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Every fall, harvesters across the state flock to Indiana's natural forests in search of ginseng.

The plant is easily missed to those who don't have experience searching for it.

And even if one is found, its tricky to know if digging it up, is even legal.

The root, when dried, currently sells up to $500/lb.

"There were approximately 3,500 lbs. harvested last year," Tom Swinford told us, "that's about $1.4 million dollars a year in import."

Swinford works for the Indiana DNR, as the assistant director of Nature Preserves.

"It's one of our earliest exports from Indiana. The very first traders, there's even accounts from French explorers looking for ginseng," he described, "there was already huge, lucrative markets, primarily in China where its been used for thousands of years in traditional medicine."

Swinford took ABC21 to an undisclosed location, to show, and talk about the plant.

It's high market value is the reason it became over-harvested.

Now the DNR highly-regulates buying and selling, and also tracks how much is picked each year.

"It's tracked as a special species of concern in Indiana," Swinford said.

Ginseng takes years to mature, so even if Hoosiers find it, they could face serious penalties if its harvested prematurely.

Sergeant Patrick Heidenreich is on the side of the law that enforces those penalties.

"When you have something that's worth a lot of money, but very slow growing - if there's no protection on that resource, it can easily be depleted so future generations will not get to use or enjoy it," he told us.

There's several areas of the law that protect the plant Heidenreich explained.

"Our enforcement role in it is to make sure that one, people aren't harvesting it out of season. And two, that people aren't trespassing on others' properties to harvest it, and then I guess three, is that they're not harvesting it on state properties where it is illegal to do so."

By violating multiple laws to find and pick ginseng, it can lead to serious trouble with the law.

"Anywhere from infractions to misdemeanors to felony charges and probably incarceration," Heidenreich said.

The DNR even has K9 officers to help sniff out ginseng suspected of being illegally harvested.

Issues like that happen mainly in southern Indiana, where the root thrives in natural forests.

"It's not real prevelant up here as it is in southern Indiana but it is here and we want people to be aware of the laws that come with it, "Heidenreich added, "we want to have a sustainable ginseng harvest for years to come."

Harvest season started September 1 and ends December 31.

The Indiana DNR has an extensive web page dedicated to information on ginseng, including how to identify it, how much was harvested in each county, and how to pick the root legally.

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Daniel Beals

Daniel Beals is the producer of the ABC21 feature franchise “21Country”. He is constantly on the lookout for ideas that capture the “people, places, things, and history” that makes Northeast Indiana unique. Feel free to reach out: dbeals@wpta21.com.

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