Root Remedy

Deserved or not, the reputation of ginseng as an all-purpose health tonic makes it a valuable crop. Can Western Maryland cash in?

November 11, 2005|By DENNIS O'BRIEN | DENNIS O'BRIEN,SUN REPORTER

With 40 acres of ginseng sprouting on his Garrett County farm, Larry Harding has learned to wait and worry.

Rodents and deer can eat his crop. Fungal diseases can attack it. The plants take eight years to produce the twisted, gnarly roots that Harding considers the right size and shape.

Although thefts are infrequent, Harding still worries constantly that a rustler will sneak into his fields at night and steal his herbs.

FOR THE RECORD - A plant pictured with a story about ginseng on the cover of yesterday's Health & Science section was actually a ginkgo.

"You've got to sleep sometime, and they don't sleep when they're thieving," said Harding, Maryland's leading ginseng producer.

But once harvested and dried, ginseng's reputed health benefits make it a true cash crop. Cultivated ginseng can sell for $75 per pound, and wild ginseng, believed to be more potent, can sell for up to $500 per pound.

Dried and ground into powder, the root has been used by the Chinese for more than 2,000 years. Believers employ it to boost the immune system, reduce stress, lower blood pressure, improve the heart and lungs, prevent cancer and enhance male sexual performance.

Dozens of ginseng studies over the years - sometimes conflicting - have supported some claims and debunked others. But ginseng is attracting increased attention these days. Although the plant may not deliver everything its proponents promise, scientists say its medicinal qualities - and potential as a cash crop - are worth investigating.

"I have no doubt that it does work - we just don't know why," said Marla McIntosh, a natural resource professor at the University of Maryland.

McIntosh has taken samples of Harding's ginseng to investigate the chemical composition of its active compounds - known as ginsenosides - and determine what types of ginsenosides produce specific health benefits.

She also wants to figure out how the plant's chemistry changes with age and whether aging makes it more potent. Finally, to help encourage more farmers to grow ginseng - she wants to determine the optimal soil and climate for raising the plant.

"Traditional Chinese medicine is based on years and years and years of trial and error, and Western medicine is just starting to look at what makes it work," she said.

Other experts are exploring whether ginseng and other herbal remedies have enough potential as cash crops to boost Western Maryland's sagging economy. Officials from the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, West Virginia University and Frostburg State University hope in the next five or 10 years to build a $60 million research facility on Maryland's border with West Virginia to focus on ginseng and other native herbal remedies.

No site has been selected, and funding sources still have to be found, but school officials say the potential cash value of ginseng and other herbals make the plan worth pursuing. They note that herbal supplements and remedies represent a $4 billion market in the U.S.

"Ginseng is a very interesting plant. No one knows, from a scientific standpoint, how it interacts to produce the effects it produces in the body, and it's worth finding out," said Jennie Hunter-Cevera, president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute.

Ginseng grows wild - although in shrinking quantities - throughout Appalachia. It has been harvested in North America since the 1700s, when a Jesuit priest discovered it growing in Canada.

So far, McIntosh and others have found that while ginseng may grow in the wild, it is difficult to cultivate on farms. With shade, well-drained soil and cold winter temperatures, it can live for 100 years.

But it takes three to five years to produce a marketable root - which is often gobbled up by wild animals before it's ready. A study early this year in the journal Science concluded that white-tailed deer could eat wild ginseng into extinction if left unchecked.

"The decline is fairly rapid for such a long-lived plant," said lead author James McGraw, a West Virginia University researcher.

For Harding's family, ginseng has been a way of life for generations. His father grew ginseng, and his grandfather collected it in the woods around his home in Friendsville. This year, Harding harvested about 600 pounds of the root on his hilly farm.

"When I was a little kid, my father would take us out and show us where the ginseng was, just for the enjoyment of being out together in the countryside," said Harding, 48, standing alongside a shed stocked with the drying ginseng roots harvested this fall. In the next few weeks, they will be shipped in 50-gallon drums to Asia.

Harding and others say the older and more gnarled the root, the better. Man-shaped roots, complete with twisted "arms" and "legs," are the most prized of all. Harding keeps three man-shaped roots preserved in alcohol-filled glass jars in his home.

"I've been offered a lot of money for these things - thousands," he says, displaying the jars. He declines to be more specific about the offers.

Ginseng is sold in health stores as crystals, extract and powder capsules and is used in toothpaste, soft drinks, tea, chewing gum and candy.

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