The plant hides in plain sight, quietly camouflaged atop the dense summer brush of Ohio's hilly forests. Its greenery is plain and humble, three distinct prongs with five leaves apiece. Even if you spotted one, you'd probably keep walking.

The plant hides in plain sight, quietly camouflaged atop the dense summer brush of Ohio’s hilly forests. Its greenery is plain and humble, three distinct prongs with five leaves apiece. Even if you spotted one, you’d probably keep walking.

Its value lies buried in the dirt, in twisted, gnarly roots that some believe can reduce stress, cleanse toxins and even cure disease.

Scientists call it wild ginseng, panax quinquefolius. Others know it as “Ohio’s green gold,” a reference to the plant’s market value, which wavers between $400 and $700 per pound.

“A lot of folks don’t know how much stuff we have out here,” says Curtis Smith, a wildlife officer supervisor with Ohio’s Division of Wildlife. “They were harvesting ginseng since they founded this country.”

On a private tract deep in Logan County, he and I have hiked into ginseng’s preferred habitat — a shaded, eastern slope with loamy soil that holds nutrients but drains well. The presence of goldenseal, bloodroot, ash trees and other indicator species signal that ginseng is likely nearby.

Smith has been managing the species for years, but even he has trouble spotting it. This has to do with the plant’s secretive nature and also with the effects of increased poaching spurred by overseas demand.

Ohio is a leading exporter of ginseng, sending out between 3,000 and 6,000 pounds of dried roots each year. Most legal and illegal harvests head to Asia, where it’s ground into powders and mixed into elixirs.

Some, though, stays right here among small-scale hobby diggers who can legally harvest plants with three or more leaf prongs from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31 with a state-issued permit. Because digging on state land is illegal, they must gain landowner permission and plant ripened berries on site to ensure species survival.

A statewide management plan, crackdowns on poachers and stringent digging restrictions are helping to ensure the survival of wild ginseng populations — one of the rich herbal treasures growing in Ohio’s fields and forests.

“It’s a sustainable resource, but you need seed production,” Smith says. “It’s been around a long time — and hopefully will be around for a long time to come.”

More about the Buckeye State’s diverse natural treasures awaits on the Ohio Adventure Map, available at columbusalive.com/venture.