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Frostburg State University Ethnobotany Students Gain Insight Into Western Maryland Ginseng Operation

Frostburg State University Ethnobotany Students Gain Insight Into Western Maryland Ginseng Operation
Frostburg State University ethnobotany major Madison Lawrence of Lonaconing looks at a ginseng plant and its berries held by Larry Harding, owner of Harding’s Ginseng Farm near Friendsville.

Frostburg State University ethnobotany students found out that, while money doesn’t grow on trees, it might grow in the ground in the form of American ginseng, cultivated near Friendsville, Md.

Introduction to Ethnobotany students traveled to visit Harding’s Ginseng Farm in Friendsville where the family operation operated by Larry Harding is still going strong today, thanks to increasing Asian demand and a corresponding surge in price for American ginseng, which is endangered in the wild.

Ethnobotany major Laura Price of Fayetteville, W.Va., was fascinated with the local pride in ginseng.

“The owner mentioned ginseng is not only a part of Asian culture, but Appalachian culture, which is something you don’t hear too often,” Price said. “He’s right, it has been an integral part of our culture here, and it was really exciting to see someone embrace that.”

Price already earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from West Virginia Wesleyan College and decided to attend FSU for its ethnobotany program after being inspired by a botanist at West Virginia Wesleyan. FSU is the only undergraduate ethnobotany major program in the U.S. that is still accepting students.

“I feel very grateful and proud to be in this major and hope that I can make just as much of a difference one day,” Price said.

Ethnobotany students study the relationships between plants and how people use them in the program. The tour of the ginseng farm demonstrated how a local crop is maintained and cultivated for a national and international demand.

Ginseng, considered to be sort of a wonder drug in Asia, is believed to have numerous benefits, ranging from lowering blood sugar and cholesterol to helping relaxation, and can be used as an aphrodisiac.

The root is anything but easy money, as the students found out from Harding, who grows wild and wild-simulated ginseng.

Maryland has its own regulations and permits for ginseng harvests. Also, the federal government only allows wild and wild-simulated American ginseng roots to be exported if the plants are five years old or older, which isn’t a concern for Harding. The Asian market will pay a premium for older roots, which are more potent.

“When it hits Asia, it is an ungodly price,” Harding, 59, told the students.

Even on the West Coast, where American ginseng doesn’t naturally grow and cities have a large Asian population, the price will be high.

“In San Francisco, one half a pound of wild American ginseng root will sell for $7,000,” Harding added. “It’s mind-boggling that this root sells for $500 to $1,000 a pound here.”

About 200 to 300 roots make up a pound of ginseng, Harding said, and the market price depends on the type of ginseng (cultivated, wild-simulated and wild).

It’s a small miracle if a ginseng root can reach older ages, as Harding explained. Ginseng grows best under a tree canopy’s shade and a dry fall could ruin the crop. It has to be protected from fungus and disease, worms and wildlife eating the crops. Harding has probably seen it all since he learned the business as a child from his late father, Kenneth Harding.

If nature doesn’t take it, man will. The high price of the crop makes it susceptible to poaching, prompting Harding and other growers to be armed with ammunition and security cameras. State and federal park rangers are also patrolling government-owned forests to help prevent ginseng poaching, too.

Hearing Harding weave in poaching tales in with the education of a ginseng economy and agricultural management helped ethnobotany student Brian Maurice relate to his coursework on medicinal plants.

“It’s invaluable to have an immersive experience,” said Maurice, a Chicago resident also majoring in computer science. “If I were to study all of this in a textbook, it wouldn’t stick as well. I wouldn’t have anything to connect it with, but Larry has all this heritage and has this story behind it. If I didn’t have it, it wouldn’t be as easy to understand why things are the way they are.”

For more information about FSU’s ethnobotany program, visit

Situated in the mountains of Allegany County, Frostburg State University is one of the 12 institutions of the University System of Maryland. FSU is a comprehensive, residential regional university and serves as an educational and cultural center for Western Maryland. For more information, visit or Follow FSU on Twitter @frostburgstate.


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