Backroads: Digging Ginseng

Tamar Mays showing a ginseng root

One of the mountain pastimes that always fascinated me is the annual end-of-summer pilgrimage to dig ginseng. Much like hunting morel mushrooms, the folks who hunt ginseng are highly secretive about where they go to find the plant. Although digging ginseng is still popular today, years ago it was a big part of the mountain people’s lives because many could make their living at it, and others could supplement their incomes selling the valuable root, buying extras that farm work didn’t provide.

Ginseng, or “zang” as the locals call it, is a native plant whose highly prized root is dug, dried, and exported to many Asian countries where it is used as an alleged aphrodisiac and heart stimulant. It is also in demand here in the United States as a tonic claimed to have health benefits. The roots, when fully dried, can bring hundreds of dollars a pound. This has resulted in overcollection, and the government has now regulated when ginseng can be gathered. The plant was in danger of becoming extinct before the new laws came into effect. The collecting season in Virginia runs from September 1 through December 31, giving ample time for harvesting and replanting the red berries, which grow in the crotch of the plant.

One person who dug ginseng her whole life was Tamar Mays, who grew up on Irish Creek. She remembered going with her entire family as a young girl to look for ginseng. It was brought home to dry and then sold to the proprietor of the local general store for three dollars a pound, which was good money back then. Now, because of its scarcity, it takes a lot more effort and time to find the plant, making it more valuable in today’s market.

The red berries of a ginseng plant

Tam recalled going out with nothing but a sharp stick and digging it anytime she wanted to. “It was growing all over the mountainsides and all we had to do was go up in the woods where it was dark and moist and dig as much as you wanted. We sold most of it but kept a little back for us, too. There wasn’t any better medicine to cure a stomachache or the cramps. We’d just chew on a little piece and before you knew it, the pain would go away.”

The mountain people dug the roots in the autumn and gathered it until its leaves started to fall off. The size of the roots depended on the number of prongs the plant had on it. Tammy said they were always looking for a plant with four or five prongs because they knew it would bring more money. 

Ron Richardson, who was a frequent contributor to the Backroads newspaper, was also an avid ginseng hunter. He gave detailed information about the plant that is pertinent today, and I am happy to pass it on to anyone interested in hunting ginseng for themselves.

A nice size root

Ginseng is a deep-rooted, long-lived, herbaceous plant that grows in the shade of tulip poplar, walnut, basswood and other hardwoods. It is rarely found in areas rich in pine trees because the soil is too acidic for it to thrive. It is also found in the company of black cohosh, yellow lady slipper, jack in the pulpit, trillium, wild ginger, and Solomon seal. The adult plant eight years and older will typically be twelve to eighteen inches tall with four stems of five leaflets each. The stems and berry stalk radiate from the same point at the top of a pencil-size plant stalk. In September, the knot of twenty or so berries turns bright red and by October the leaves turn into a beautiful shade of pale golden yellow. 

Ron also gave a few conservation rules. Dig only mature roots and only after the berries are red. Be careful not to dig up the little plants, which are often found underneath the larger ones. Bury the berries one or two inches deep in the general vicinity of the mother plant. Each berry contains two or three flat seeds that take around eighteen months to sprout. A mature ginseng plant does not flower and set seed for four or five years. Add the nearly two years it takes them to germinate and it quickly becomes apparent why the plants are in danger of over collection. The average size mature root will weigh about one third of an ounce and it takes at least three ounces of green roots to make one ounce of dry.

The leaves of a ginseng plant

One of my own ginseng hunting memories always evokes a smile. My good friend Charlotte Hodge and I had been out ginsenging one season and came home with a goodly stash. Later in the year we drove to Klotz Brothers in Staunton to cash in our dried roots. A bunch of tobacco-chewing men in bib overalls watched us come in and snickered when we told the proprietor we came to sell our ginseng. But when we dumped our roots on the scale, they quit laughing. We ate at our favorite Chinese restaurant every Sunday that entire winter on our profits!

If you want to try your hand at digging ginseng, inquire at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Richmond to see when the season in your area starts. There are also permits that must be obtained before digging on National Forest and state lands. Hunting in Shenandoah National Park or Blue Ridge Parkway property is strictly forbidden, as the plant is protected in both.

If you are up for a challenge and want to spend a day in the great outdoors, hunting ginseng may be just the ticket. Gather up a book on native plants to help you identify the elusive perennial, take a long-handled screwdriver for digging, some water and snacks, and be on your way! 


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