Ginseng, the curious rootstock

Posted by | September 15, 2017

It’s the heart of ginseng harvesting season. The berry clusters have ripened. The leaves are yellowing. The roots are ready. But stay awhile. The best hunting is still to come, after the first hard frost.

Ginseng rootBut don’t wait too long. Because of wild ginseng’s endangered status, the U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service has mandated that states allowing its export have protective regulations in place. Consequently, most states have adopted a late-summer through early-fall ginseng hunting season.

“I remember digging ginseng when I was six years old. I’ve always seen it as a big equalizer for people from Appalachia,” says Fred Hays of Elkview, WV, spokesman for the West Virginia Ginseng Growers Association, noting that the harvest surges when unemployment is high or the region’s coal miners are on strike and ginseng becomes an alternative income for many. Drought has taken a toll this year, deer have eaten the leaves, turkeys eat the seeds, and rodents go after the root itself. But the harvest makes it worthwhile. Full article here.

Notice the link above takes you not to the Charleston Gazette or the Dominion Post in Morgantown, but to Reuters UK! The British typify a widespread attitude beyond America’s borders, which is that, while ginseng can be found in many parts of the continent besides Appalachia—Panax quinquefolius‘ range includes the eastern half of North America, from Quebec to Minnesota and south to Georgia and Oklahoma—ginseng and Appalachia are seen to simply go hand in hand.

Ginseng’s hold on our consciousness has been strong for a long long time. Alice Lounsberry’s comments from “Southern Wildflowers and Trees,” published in 1901, capture the gist of it well: “Its true value lies, as we know, in its curious rootstock, long famed as being a cure for almost every sort of ill, and an antidote for every poison. Even the word panacea is believed by many to have been derived from its generic name. In China, where it has been largely cultivated and also exported from that country in immense quantities, it is still regarded as being possessed of properties more powerfully stimulating to the human system than those of any other drug.”

So if it’s such a wonder drug, and the Chinese are cultivating it, why hasn’t it simply taken its place in our country as a Big Agriculture cash crop, next to soybeans or tobacco?

“You can cultivate that stuff,” says Lake Stiles in Foxfire 3, “and it won’t bring you half as much as wild ginseng. If it’s cultivated, it makes a great big root. If it’s wild, it’s just a small root. But you can’t get by with cultivated sang with a [ginseng dealer] who knows what he’s doing.”

Wild ginseng favors mature hardwood stands where the terrain is sloping to the north and east. Panax quinquefolium loves a moist but well-drained and thick litter layer with more than just a tad of undergrowth. You will find yourself looking at a lot of other species of plants for the prize. A young hickory or Virginia creeper will confuse the beginner.

So: it’s highly sought, it’s an endangered species, its hunting season is fairly narrow, it’s easily confused with other plants, and you have to look in very particular areas on a mountain or in a holler. Should be enough to keep British reporters intrigued for years to come.


Foxfire 3 (Anchor Press/Doubleday, Garden City, NY 1973) p. 254

Ginseng West+Virginia+Ginseng+Growers+Association Panax+quinquefolius appalachia +appalachia+history appalachian+culture appalachian+mountains+history

One Response

  • J Floyd says:

    WV native pride. Cherokee/Powhatan. Beware of the barking squirrel, a bear is NIGH. The loud bird that talks too much may show you the way, but be ready to climb and watch every step, the snakes will be plenty. —Message from 5th G Grandson of famous long hunter James John Floyd. Who, if he would of been on Pompay that day on Bullet Lick, would of lived. May all my 10th grandfather Chief Powhatan’s ginseng stay protected, not stolen. Abide the laws and stay safe; we’re still here and always watching.

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