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  • Jakarta Crown Eco Management On World Environment Day and Every Day, the Stress of Being Ginseng

    Environment, Environmental Design

    Being surrounded by ginseng--a low-growing green-leafed herb of North American forests--may have been common in 1751, but today? Ginseng is under siege.

    Biologist James McGraw of West Virginia University should know. Today on World Environment Day, and indeed every day, McGraw says that we can learn much about the environment around us from one small plant.

    Funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Long Term Research in Environmental Biology (LTREB) grant, McGraw and colleagues peer into the lives of more than 4,000 individual ginseng plants each year to see how they're faring.

    "These understory plants are subject to all manner of [environmental] stresses," says McGraw. "After a while, you begin to wonder why there are any left."

    Facing a panoply of threats

    First, he says, there's harvesting for medicinal uses, "which is widespread and often illegally or at least unethically done. Then we have our four-footed friends--white-tailed deer--which eat a significant number of plants every year."

    The plants' next challenge is the growth of invasive species such as multiflora rose and garlic mustard, which compete with ginseng.

    The effects of global warming, including summers with heat waves and droughts, add to the burden for these plants of cooler climes. "Ginseng is also affected by ice storms, late frosts and hurricane flooding," says McGraw.

    Then these Indiana Joneses of the plant world must survive what McGraw refers to as "natural pests:" insects defoliators and fungal pathogens.

    Last--but definitely not least--is us.

    "We're just beginning to understand what humans are doing to the forests where ginseng thrives: timbering, suppressing natural fires, mining, clearing land for housing developments, the list goes on and on," says McGraw.

    The persistence of a slow-growing and valuable medicinal plant "despite all this," he says, "is a testament to the resilience of nature--and to the stewardship of those land-owners who care about protecting biodiversity in their forests."

    Species in an extinction vortex

    Tigers, elephants and ginseng all share a common feature, says Saran Twombly, director of NSF's LTREB program.

    "These dwindling populations face increasing threats that trap them in an extinction vortex," Twombly says.

    "McGraw's research relies on long-term data to identify the factors threatening populations of this important forest plant. The results show the knife-edge that separates healthy and unhealthy populations."

    The NSF LTREB award "has been critical to our understanding of the 'big picture' of ginseng conservation," says McGraw.

    He and colleagues work on one species of ginseng, Panax quinquefolius L., American ginseng. This member of the ginseng family, whose genus name Panax means "all heal" in Greek, hides deep in eastern deciduous woodlands.

    The plant was historically found in rich, cool hardwood forests--from southern Quebec and Ontario south to northern Georgia, and west as far as Minnesota, eastern Oklahoma and northern Louisiana.

    "Ginseng populations vary from frequent to uncommon to rare across the landscape," says McGraw, "but they're almost always small, usually fewer than 300 plants."

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