American ginseng is a widespread, but uncommon to rare, understory plant of the eastern broadleaf forests of North America, and serves as an excellent model for rare species more generally. Plant censuses were begun in 1998 on a set of ginseng populations in a diverse array of environments to address important ecological questions regarding the effects of overbrowsing, invasive species, landscape change, climate change, and commercial harvest on population sustainability. The current award extends long-term data collection for American ginseng. Mathematical models based on census data will be developed to project long-term population growth and viability in response to infrequent events (either detrimental or beneficial); the tradeoff between directional change and stochastic variation; synchronicity of demographic patterns over space; and the likelihood of extinction of small populations. These phenomena typify vexing problems that cannot be addressed from typical short-term studies or studies of a limited sample of populations.
The project has diverse broader impacts. Roots of this culturally and economically important plant are harvested from the wild by rural Appalachian residents to supply the Asian traditional medicine market, and contribute to the local economy. Student training opportunities will be offered annually to support career development of young scientists. Census data will be shared with the scientific community, and linkages with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service provide direct policy input annually. Finally, a public web site will be updated regularly to explain the research effort and its principal findings.