Watoga Trail Report

The ginseng plant stands out on the forest floor with the help of its bright red berries. A pulled ginseng root in the hand is shown at right. Photo courtesy of John Carl Jacobs, own works CCB

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

Ginseng, ~
panax quinquefolium

“There’s gold in them thar hills” – a borrowed and corrupted phrase allegedly taken from Mark Twain’s novel The American Clai-mant. It refers to gold discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1849, setting off the great California Gold Rush.

Here in the northern Appalachians where gold is as scarce as hen’s teeth, the phrase might just as well apply to panax quinquefolium or as it is better known – ginseng.

Sang, as the plant is often called, is esteemed in these hills and has been an extra source of income for Appalachian families since the 1800s and possibly earlier.

Thoughts of writing about ginseng have been rattling around in my head for some time now. It was a conversation with my UPS driver that caused the idea to gel.

On a recent delivery, the cheerful 20-something driver asked me if there was ginseng around here. After answering in the affirmative, he went on to share with me some wonderful stories about hunting ginseng with his dad in the fall of each year when he was a lad.

He said that the ginseng they collected was dried and then sold to one of a dozen or so buyers in West Virginia. This money was generally used during the holiday season for purchasing gifts and entertaining friends and family. 

As he wistfully described this annual project it seemed to me that he regarded this time spent with his father in the woods as a much-anticipated family ritual. For his father, it may have meant the difference between a bountiful Christmas and one that was meager.

After venturing just a short way into the world of ginseng, I now realize that it is not only a big thing here in Appalachia, but hugely important to many Asian communities. They swear by the powers of this root and they rate our Appalachian ginseng as “top shelf” in terms of efficacy.

As a way of introducing readers to this revered and sought-after plant, future articles will follow ginseng from its growing season here in the mountains, right on through its harvesting and distribution to primarily Asian markets.

We will discuss ginseng’s role in traditional medicine and the sometimes controversial health claims made by its users and advocates. We will take a look into the science of ginseng and weigh the concerns about over-harvesting and the measures currently in place to protect the plant.

The series will culminate with a visit to a ginseng buyer whose family has been in the business for several generations. 
Here we will examine the fluctuations of a market that seems immune from the effects of the stock market. Ginseng is one American product that is always in demand in China.

Part One: A Brief History of Ginseng

Ginseng is an herbaceous perennial plant, meaning that the stalk and leaves die down each year at the conclusion of its growing season, with the roots surviving. From the central stem, that can grow up to two feet in height, there are two to five leaf stems, each ending in a palmate cluster of five leaves.

Ginseng flowers from May through August, depending upon elevation and exposure to sunlight. The very small greenish-white or yellow-green flowers arise from the apex of the leaf cluster. A crown of bright red berries adorns the plant from August through October and is a distinctive visual sign for ginseng hunters.

This species can have an exceptionally long life – over a hundred years in some cases. You can determine the age of an individual plant by counting the root scars, similar to counting the rings on a tree. Starting at the root collar, count the spiraling scars by slowly turning the root as you count.

It is the often forked root that all of the fuss is about; it can be worth a lot of money to collectors and is considered an essential tonic to the end-point consumer. And it is this forked root that takes us all the way back to ancient China.

The word “ginseng” is a derivation of a Chinese word combining the Chinese characters for “person” and “plant root.” In Mandarin, this would be pronounced Ren Chen meaning “man-like.” The forked root does, in fact, resemble the legs of a human.

Often, folk medicine confers healing powers to leaves and roots of plants that resemble human body parts and internal organs. 

Examples of this are prescribing walnuts for head injuries because the walnut resembles the human brain, or concoctions of liverwort for liver ailments because of the plant’s resemblance to the liver. 

This makes sense that ginseng would be considered appropriate for treating human ailments, quite a few as we shall see.

American ginseng is highly prized by the Chinese, a culture that has been utilizing ginseng as a medicinal herb for centuries.

The earliest written record of ginseng’s use in China was recorded in 196 AD in the Shen-Nung Pharmacopoeia. Korean records document the use of ginseng as a treatment for chronic diseases as far back as 38 BC.

So, how did our Appalachian ginseng come to the attention of Chinese and Koreans – countries a half a world away and possessing a ravenous appetite for high-quality ginseng?

A French Jesuit Missionary, Joseph-Francois Lafitau, is credited with making the world aware of the presence of ginseng in Canada as early as 1711. Observing the Iroquois using ginseng in medical concoctions, he began writing about the herb in a cultural essay on Iroquois and other regional tribes. The word about ginseng spread from there.

Soon, American ginseng found its way to the Far East. In short order, the skills of our earliest pioneers were put to the task of harvesting and selling this esteemed root.

The Workman Cabin, residing in the far reaches of Watoga State Park, has an interpretive sign attached to the cabin where hikers can learn about the cabin and the lives of the people who lived there.

After stating that Andrew Workman built this cabin in 1887, it goes on to say, “Subsistence farming, hunting game and selling ginseng were the ways that this family eked out a living on this remote site.”

Without a doubt, this could be said of many families here in Appalachia. And, the tradition carries on to this very day.

There is much more to the story of ginseng. Please stay tuned for future dispatches as we follow this precious plant from the soil of Appalachian forests to the consumers who put great stock in the power of this plant.

Stay healthy neighbors, please take all precautions to avoid this flu. Who knows, maybe a little ginseng tea will help.

Ken Springer

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