Leaving Forest Plants for the Next Generation

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- In late August and through the month of September, the Forest Service will sell permits for harvesting ginseng in the national forests in western North Carolina. Ginseng is one of a number of forest products that visitors can harvest in national forests with a permit.

Galax in the fall
Galax in the fall

Ginseng diggers, galax pickers and other collectors comb the land in search of their treasure. Other edibles gathered from the forests are mushrooms, baby ferns, blueberries, raspberries and acorns. Pinecones are gathered for Christmas wreaths and centerpieces. A wealth of valued plants, seeds and ornamentals exist in western North Carolina’s Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests – the largest sources in the East for certain forest products.

As national forest stewards, Forest Service employees work to sustain these plants for future generations. Botanists monitor plants, administrators oversee the special forest products program and law enforcement officers enforce permit laws. Despite these efforts, legal and illegal harvests are having an effect on certain plants.

“Over the years, we’ve seen a decline in populations of ginseng and other forest products such as ramps,” said Gary Kauffman, botanist with the National Forests in North Carolina. “If their numbers get too low, the Forest Service may have change the way we manage certain forest products in the future. This could include shortening the harvest season, reducing the amount of plants that can be harvested or banning the harvest of a particular plant altogether.”

“Whether they harvest ginseng in late summer or ramps in the spring, the Forest Service encourages visitors who harvest forest products to help ensure that these plants will be available next year and for our grandchildren,” said Kauffman. “Harvesters can help by not taking too many of any one kind of plant in a single area. The key is to leave plants behind so natural regeneration can occur.”

Where can you collect?

Carrying permits, collectors may gather special forest products in certain areas of the national forests, where land is managed under the multiple-use mission of the Forest Service. Visitors may not collect forest products in wilderness, special management areas, recreation areas and, in some cases, not within the boundary of timber sales. Each District may also have other areas that are not open to collection.  

“Permits can be purchased at local ranger station offices,” said Teresa Whitmire, resource specialist with the National Forests in North Carolina. “Before removing any forest product from a national forest, check with your closest ranger station regarding regulations.”

Click here to find fact sheets on ramps, galax and ginseng.

What is plant theft?

Removing any plant or its parts from national forest land without a permit is considered theft. Every national forest plant is public property, which means plant thieves are robbing taxpayers of a resource that is collectively owned. Penalties for plant poaching may include a fine up to $5,000 or sentence in a federal prison, or both.

Ramps: Popular for cuisine

In the Southern national forests, the most valuable culinary product is the ramp, a delicacy added to spring tonics and southern dishes. Ramps are the focus of spring festivals and special events.

Medicinals thrive in forests

Forest Service researchers identified more than 50 medicinal plants in the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests. Even after 250 years of collection, American ginseng still ranks as the most heavily harvested medicinal plant. False unicorn, black cohosh and bloodroot are other medicinal plants found in western North Carolina’s national forests.

Galax: Prized ornamental

In the national forests in North Carolina, galax is one of the most popular forest products. The leaves are used in decorative floral arrangements.