Every hunter has his tools of the trade, but what kind of hunter needs a shovel and a cane?
A ginseng hunter.
It might not be mobile prey, but ginseng is a hot commodity that is found in the woods all around Pocahontas County, and the season opened September 1.
Ginseng is a perennial plant, the root of which is used in herbal medicine.
For Green Bank resident Donnie Waybright, hunting ginseng is a way to enjoy the outdoors and remember his childhood.
“My granddad taught me,” Waybright said. “That was his income. He ginsenged in the summer and trapped in the winter, and he tied flies and sold flies. He started me out – we walked everywhere that we went. He didn’t have an automobile, and we’d just take off walking, go clear back into Virginia from here in a day’s time.”
Waybright said he was about six or seven years old when he started ginsenging. He took a break from it for more than 40 years before picking it back up again.
“The last two years of high school, I don’t think I did it because I worked at the Green Bank sawmill for two summers,” he said. “Then I went in the service and got married after that, and moved to Maryland. I hadn’t done anything for almost forty years and then after I retired and came back here, I got back into it and love it.”
Ginsenging has changed over the years and Waybright said the regulations are stricter now because of the decline in ginseng growth.
“You just started in the summer or when it was warming up, and you’d go out and start digging it,” he said. “Maybe that’s why there isn’t any today. Granddad would know where the patches were, and we’d go back every year to those. All back through these mountains – on Buffalo and around. Every hollow has got a name to it, so you’d go up Back Draft or over at Bridge Run, and dig the ginseng.”
When diggers find a patch of ginseng, it takes a good eye and knowledge of the plant to know which ones are ready to be pulled and which need to stay in the ground a little longer. Waybright said it’s all about the leaves.
“They say a three-prong is supposed to be five years old, and they’ve got little buds on their stem,” he said. “Each prong has five leaves to it. You start out with the first year, when it comes up, it will just be three leaves, so you don’t mess with those. But then, about every three or four years, they’re probably a two prong. Then the next year will be a three prong.
“You know by experience what looks to be mature-type stuff, and that’s what you dig,” he continued. “You leave all the small stuff and go back next year to that same place and it will be mature.”
To increase the number of ginseng patches, Waybright said he sprinkles the berries around the forest floor and covers them with leaves to encourage new growth. The berries begin green, but when they are ripe, they are a bright red, which makes it easier to see the plant sticking out of the ground.
“It’ll be standing up here along with the rest of the weeds and you’re walking along looking down, and you’ll see the little three leaves and that will catch your eye,” he said. “Then, you’ll start looking around, ‘huh, looky there,’ because you know that three leaf got its start from somewhere.”
A lot of ginseng diggers, or “sengers” only dig the root to make money. For Waybright, it’s not about the money. It’s about experiencing the calm and beauty of the outdoors.
“It’s a good time of year to get out,” he said. “You get your quiet out there in the woods, and you notice if there is any game. You get to experience the outdoors. Last week, I was ginsenging and bear season was in here. These guys were running around looking for a bear, and there was one that came right across the ridge up there where I was ginsenging.
“Squirrels, deer, turkeys, you’ll see them all,” he continued. “Everybody asks about snakes, and I’ve never killed a snake out ginsenging.”
Because of the decrease in the size and number of ginseng patches, Waybright said he’s lucky if he gets four pounds in a year, which adds up to a lot of digging.
“Years ago, you used to really be able to find it,” he said. “Nowadays, I find a couple, three or four pounds I dry a year, but that’s a lot of senging. To find any seng, you’ve got to get into the roughest and hardest areas there is around hillsides, on the rocks and cliffs, stuff like that. It’s usually on the north side where the sun doesn’t really burn it up really hard. Most of the time, it’s rich soil. You learn all that just from experience over the years.”
Once he comes in with his ginseng, Waybright dries it similar to the way his granddad did – laying the roots on a screen and exposed to heat.
“My granddad always had it on an old cook stove, and the ginseng had a screen – a rack – up over the stove,” he said. “You always had the wood stove burning year-round because that’s what they cooked with and that’s where they got heat.”
As long as there are ginseng patches in the woods, Waybright will continue to collect the roots – for fun, for enjoyment of the outdoors and for memories of his childhood.
“When I was growing up, you didn’t have anything to entertain you, so going ginsenging – that was a treat,” he said.