Deep in the mountains of Vietnam’s Central Highlands, one man is on a mission to make sure a native strain of ginseng with potential medicinal qualities doesn’t go extinct. “It contains very precious genes we need to preserve,” Tran Hoan, Director of the Kon Tum Ngoc Linh Ginseng JS Company, says in a statement at his arboretum on the top of Ngoc Linh mountain. “If this ginseng disappears, we will never have a chance to take it back.”
Hoan wants to grow Panax vietnamensis, a ginseng strain that grows only on Ngoc Linh Mountain, which straddles Kon Tum and Quang Nam provinces, nearly 2,600 metres above sea level.
Vietnam’s Agricultural Genetics Institute (AGI) said in a 2017 report that over-exploitation has pushed it to the verge of extinction.
The ginseng branch sprouts annually in spring and withers in late summer before hibernating for the rest of the year. Each plant has only one bulb.
Past research conducted by Vietnam’s Health Ministry has found that the Ngoc Linh ginseng contains saponins - the main component in ginseng and widely considered to have health benefits - that have a structure not found in other types from Japan, Korea or the US.
“This is a special flora, among the most fragile of plants,” says Tran Cong Luan, Former Director of the Ho Chi Minh City Research Centre of Ginseng and Medicinal Materials, adding that it can grow only under a jungle canopy and near running water at altitudes above 1,200 metres.
“It has been listed as one of eight precious and endangered flora genes in Vietnam’s Red Book,” he adds, referring to a list created by the country of rare and endangered native species. Prized for its medicinal properties, the ginseng is also extremely expensive, fetching up to $5,000 per kilogram.
Hoan says he wants to change that. “I want to grow it, and one day, when I am sure about the sustainable development of this ginseng, I will supply it to the market at a reasonable price so all people have a chance to use it,” he says.
“People often tell me I am a weird businessman because I’m not selling my ginseng when the price is very high, but if I uproot them now to sell, I can’t expand the area,” he says. Hoan, who also owns rubber plantations, a goat farm and a construction firm, first came to Ngoc Linh mountain in 1994.
“I contacted ethnic people, the Xe Dang, in this area and learned about the value of Ngoc Linh ginseng,” says Hoan, adding that he began to fear for the plant’s future. “I saw people trying to find it and I thought sooner or later it would become extinct, so I started reading many books about this plant and thought of growing it.”
Hoan began trying to grow the ginseng in 1997, but the project did not work out. However, after more than 20 years of experimentation, with the help of a biologist brought in from Ho Chi Minh City, the project is showing promise.
He says he currently has around 8 million plants covering 400 hectares, but he is not selling them yet, as he wants to use the seedlings to cover all 4,600 hectares of his land. He has already successfully cultivated seedlings in preparation for this expansion.
The project also helps preserve the forest, as the ginseng requires canopy cover to grow. “Since Ngoc Linh ginseng can only grow and develops naturally in virgin forests. My top priority is protecting the forest,” Hoan says.
A Sy, the local Communist Party boss in Te Xang commune, one of the sites of the ginseng crops, confirms that Hoan’s work is good for the forest.
“If Hoan did not grow Ngoc Linh ginseng here, those virgin forests wouldn’t exist,” he says, adding that Hoan, who employs 300 people, has also provided an alternative to illegal logging for the locals. “Our lives have been improved. We have televisions, motorbikes, and the most important thing is that people have stopped deforesting for farming,” he adds.
The operation is not cheap - Hoan estimates that he spends $700,000 a month to keep it going. As he continuously uses his plants to seed more ginseng instead of selling them, he is passing up on potentially millions of dollars in short-term gains. But it’s worth it, he says. “This ginseng farm is an invaluable asset, so I will not sell it now. I only want to preserve this rare ginseng for Kon Tum province, for Vietnam and for the world.”
Vietnamese Prime Minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited the ginseng farm in September 2018 and lauded Hoan for his contribution to preserving the rare plant.
“Ngoc Linh ginseng is Vietnam’s national treasure and can generate jobs and better living conditions for local farmers,” Phuc says, adding that he wants it to one day become a national brand the country can be proud of.–DPA
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