Welcome to American Ginseng: Local Knowledge, Global Roots. This exhibition presents the stories of a wide variety of people with intimate knowledge of the harvest, cultivation, trade, medicinal use, and conservation of this fascinating plant. You can also add your own ginseng story.
When Anna Lucio started her work with ginseng duties in the Office of Agricultural Marketing at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, she was afraid that she didn’t possess “ginseng eyes”—the ability to spot the elusive forest botanical among other plants in its natural habitat. Even though she is Kentucky born and bred and was raised on a farm, she didn’t have much experience with the plant. But she needn’t have worried.
A friend took her to her family’s forested property, where they had been nurturing the wild ginseng plants. When she parked at the edge of the woods no less than “two car lengths away,” she reports, “I looked up in the woods and I saw twenty to thirty plants sitting there. We spent about four or five hours in the woods in a different spot and came out with fifteen roots. And her dad said, ‘I would go “sengin” with that girl anytime. You tell her to come home anytime she wants to go.’”
American ginseng has become a bit of an obsession for Lucio, as well as the basis of her job. Her Frankfort office is a one-room museum of, and classroom on, ginseng. Exemplary specimens, as well as items that tell cautionary tales (harvesting underage ginseng or damaging roots when drying) line the walls and shelves. Behind her desk is a large plastic box containing instructional display materials she brings to the Kentucky State Fair and other venues to help educate the public about the plant’s growing cycle, regulations governing its harvest, and proper root digging methods.
Lucio enjoys the stories that she collects during the state fair, where she gets many positive reactions to her display. “We get a lot of response from people saying, ‘Oh my goodness! I remember my granddad harvesting that.’ Or even ‘my grandma did it!’” As a woman in this largely male-dominated world of ginseng harvesting and dealing, Lucio is particularly interested in learning more about women and ginseng. “Women were the medicine collectors, it seems like, in our eastern Kentucky communities.”
Her job is complex, and a flurry of activity descends upon her during the fall season. Lucio interacts mostly with ginseng dealers, who need to maintain a protocol for gathering and reporting information if they want to keep their required licenses in order. “We need to do better as an industry of tracking this and how we’re handling it.” Lucio offers guidance to the dealers for legally selling and utilizing this resource and puts the responsibility directly on them to build and maintain a future for the plant. “They tell me their grandfather used to do this; that’s fantastic and I love that heritage.”
Lucio takes pride in conserving fresh ginseng roots that are very small and not valuable to the dealer, typically five to ten years old. She helped Kentucky ginseng dealers create a legal fresh (as opposed to dried) ginseng market around 2007 and has seen many more fresh roots since then. She recalls one “marriage” she made between a dealer with small fresh, legal roots and a grower of wild-simulated ginseng looking for legal rootlets. In another instance, a licensed dealer contacted her for ideas of what to do with such roots—legal for commerce, but not large enough to make much profit. Based on their conversations, the dealer planted 100 of those roots in a bed in 2014; seven years later, the patch now has a few thousand plants. In short, Lucio likes to “think outside the box” and to connect the strong history of American ginseng in Kentucky to its future: “We’ve got to see where we’ve been to know where we need to go.”
Both Anna Plattner and Justin Wexler grew up immersed in the natural beauty of the Catskill Mountains and nearby Hudson Valley. Plattner studied natural resources at Cornell University, where she first encountered the concept of “conservation through cultivation,” which promotes forest farming and its positive impact on ecosystems. Wexler studied ethnoecology and education at Marlboro College and Bard College. The two met at a master naturalist training program and immediately clicked.
Today, the husband-and-wife team run the world’s largest wild-simulated ginseng operation: American Ginseng Pharm. AGP started more than a decade ago when Eva Tsai, a charismatic businesswoman with a passion for herbal medicine, reached out to internationally recognized ginseng expert Bob Beyfuss. Not long after AGP planted the first seeds near Plattner’s hometown, she joined the operation and became its general manager within two years. Wexler jokes that he was “roped into” joining the effort, although Plattner says that he was indispensable for their early establishment—and continues to be—as the native plant and geographic information specialist.
Together, the couple enthusiastically applies cutting-edge agroforestry techniques to efficiently grow wild simulated ginseng. Their methods derive from historical stewardship practices, which create the ideal environment for the plants to thrive without the use of heavy machinery or soil amendments but decrease the high labor time and expenses associated with such techniques.
As Plattner explains, “Our way of growing ginseng mimics natural disturbances, which is highly beneficial for healthy forest systems. We find that within a few years of planting a site with ginseng, many native medicinal plants—such as blue cohosh, maidenhair fern, and wild ginger—increase in population.” In this way, they help the entire forest ecosystem while taking harvest pressure off existing wild ginseng populations.
Moreover, AGP leases much of its planting land, providing landowners with a source of income and an alternative to destructive logging practices. As Wexler explains, “Logging operations in the Catskills decimate local ecosystems, taking out keystone trees, bringing in invasive species, and ultimately destroying biodiversity. We try to provide an alternative way to profit from woodland, which allows for the maturation of old-growth forest ecosystems.”
Plattner and Wexler also maintain a small forest farm of their own and host workshops and local natural-history walks sponsored by their organization, Wild Hudson Valley. Their property is a United Plant Savers-certified botanical sanctuary, perfect for hosting classes and overnight camping.
The COVID-19 crisis has increased the global demand for herbal medicine, and climate change has increased the need for regenerative agricultural practices. Plattner and Wexler feel that wild simulated ginseng cultivation is key in the journey to a healthier humanity and planet overall.
Trivett still enjoys being alone in the woods. But he now has a higher purpose: to ensure that wild and wild-simulated ginseng have a future in his beloved mountains. Indeed, those mountains called him back home when he was twenty-one, after just a few years in college. Learning more from studying the plants and their environment first-hand, he started planting and nurturing ginseng—including on other people’s land for a portion of the profits.
In 2020, Trivett purchased his own plot at a high elevation, which he calls North Wind Farm. His belief is that “any ginseng up high, probably has got some really strong genes.” He supplements the wild ginseng already growing on the land by planting seeds that may help realize his dreams of establishing a strong local strain of organic ginseng in the future.
Trivett believes strongly in the health properties of ginseng and wants to promote its domestic use. He uses all parts of the plant himself, even adding the green leaves like lettuce to sandwiches. Knowing that many Americans do not enjoy ginseng’s often-bitter taste, Trivett tries blending ginseng with other, more familiar herbs like mint. He also tries cinnamon, lemon, and honey to help create a more pleasing taste and to expand ginseng’s use.
All in all, Trivett shows a deep respect for ginseng and its enduring existence in the East Tennessee mountains. “You look at a plant and marvel how it may be older than you. If Trivett has anything to do with it, ginseng will continue to thrive and to sustain the health and the economy of the area for years to come.
When Ed Daniels was a teenager, he dug wild ginseng from the West Virginia mountains for money. “If I wanted new school clothes, I dug ginseng and sold it. I bought my first car, a VW bug, with ginseng.” Although he had learned about ginseng from older relatives, “no one taught me [to be a good steward]. Now I go back to some of those areas and ... the ginseng is dug out.”
In the early 2000s, Ed and Carole began growing ginseng as forest farmers. In 2016, they began Shady Grove Botanicals after expanding their farming to more forest botanicals, such as elderberry, goldenseal, and blue and black cohosh. Carole aids Ed in planting, tending, and harvesting, and she also takes charge of promoting the business via social media.
Ed is quick to admit ginseng is his favorite plant. He checks on the progress of the plants almost daily during growing season and “stops just short of naming them all.” His great-grandfather worked at a logging camp and took charge of “patching up” ailing workers; remedies included his recipe for ginseng leaf tea with teaberry and honey, plus the optional ingredient of local alcohol, which Ed and Carole still make. They’ve developed new tea blends, as well as tinctures, salves, and herb-infused honey.
The Daniels are passionate about using their forest-farming experience to educate people about the importance of stewarding important native botanicals, especially ginseng. Their young grandson, Briar, has his own “patch” of plants, and even as a toddler could already identify ginseng.
This passion led to pairing Ed with budding forest farmer Clara Haizlett from Bethany, West Virginia, as an apprentice through the West Virginia Folklife Program in 2020. Even though the pandemic made face-to-face meeting difficult, they found socially distanced ways of sharing information. For instance, Ed and Carole created a “scavenger hunt” for Haizlett to use on her own land to learn how to identify beneficial native, as well as harmful invasive, plants.
About the Daniels, Haizlett observes, “They have plenty of experience, but they also have innovation. Just in the past year they are acquiring different plants and trying different practices. I wanted to work with someone who is familiar with the traditional practice but is also innovating the new features of ginseng and botanicals.”
Their current approach to forest farming, and their devotion to education, more than makes up for Ed’s past ginseng digging transgressions. “We put back more ‘sang’ than I’ll ever dig in my life. We know the power of this plant.”
Chip Carroll drives a white SUV with a license plate that reads “GINSENG.” That’s one indication of how much the plant is, as he puts it, “in his blood.” He also has an impressive ginseng-themed tattoo running the length of his left calf. Before taking a class in field biology at Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio, though, Carroll did not know that ginseng grew in his home state, or how important it would become to him.
Growing up in northeastern Ohio around Youngstown, Carroll developed an interest in outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing, and gathering wild mushrooms. He interned with United Plant Savers as an undergraduate and joined AmeriCorps after college. AmeriCorps assigned him to work with Rural Action in Athens, Ohio, in its Sustainable Agriculture and Forestry program.
Carroll settled down to raise his family in the area, continuing to work with Rural Action and United Plant Savers, and is always learning more about ginseng. Many problems beset ginseng populations in Carroll’s eyes, but the average harvester is not one of them. Deer browsing and loss of habitat from industry are concerns, along with poor conservation policies for endangered plants.
However, having monitored state forest populations of ginseng for many years, he admits he often writes in his annual reports that “the biggest threat to ginseng in the national forests is the Forest Service” and points to projects like building recreational bike paths through the woods as some of the worst actions for vulnerable ginseng populations that the agency takes.
Although he has maintained “there is no such thing anymore as wild ginseng,” Carroll qualifies that statement by explaining that there has been much human intervention over the years, such as moving plants from their original locations and planting seeds throughout forests. After all, ginseng has been harvested commercially for more than two hundred years in the Appalachian region; long before that, American Indian tribes used it for medicine. It is natural that humans have interacted with and affected populations in even the most remote areas.
Hunting ginseng is a multigenerational activity in southern Ohio. During the years Carroll worked as a ginseng dealer, he recalls repeat clients—a grandmother, mother, and daughter. “They had a competition to see who could dig the most root. They would be so excited to come in and see whose bag weighed the most.” His preteen son has planted his own patch of ginseng, though lately his interest in football has sidetracked his ginseng cultivation. “He’ll come around,” Carroll says.
Carroll’s hope for the future of ginseng includes a practical method of educating diggers to be good stewards; he proposes a program similar to the state hunters’ safety courses. The amount of young ginseng plants he sees during monitoring is encouraging, but Carroll is discouraged by a noticeable reduction in more mature, well-established plants.
“Ginseng is a national treasure of this country,” Carroll concludes. In his opinion, it should be everyone’s responsibility to protect it.
In her twenty years as Pennsylvania state ginseng coordinator, Chris Firestone has defined the “best and worst” parts of her job. “The best part is being able to work towards conserving important species” like the threatened and endangered plant populations she manages throughout Pennsylvania. The worst part “is trying to figure out how to make the best decisions for a plant for conservation from now and into the future.”
The passion Chris has for her job and the plants that she works to protect stems from her love of the natural world which has been shaped by influential women from her childhood. “[My grandmother] was a vegetarian and she was all about holistic health and alternative healing. She would make these green shakes for us, with weeds that she knew, which were edible. She picked them from her yard and put them in a blender. My mom was an environmental education teacher. So being outdoors and learning about the environment, I grew up doing that.”
Through life experiences, Chris found an interest in plants like ginseng, starting with an internship with the Nature Conservancy that piqued her interest in plant conservation. Realizing the importance of plants and being able to identify them leads to learning the story of the plant. These stories may include the history, medicinal and food uses, and the plants’ roles in the environment—and have the power to entice people to conserve the plants.
The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources lists ginseng as one of three plants vulnerable to population decline; the other two are yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). These plants are at risk due to their economic value (ginseng and goldenseal) or their beauty (yellow lady’s slipper), which attracts collectors. As a ginseng coordinator, Chris monitors yearly harvesting through quarterly and annual reports from Pennsylvania ginseng dealers that record the amount of ginseng sold in the state. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service compiles this information and shares it with CITES (Conference on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Since the addition of ginseng to Appendix II of CITES in 1975, ginseng exported from Pennsylvania is deemed sustainable, thanks to conservation efforts and policies led by Firestone and her colleagues.
Firestone acknowledges that there will probably always be ginseng “as long as there are people to plant it.” However, she says, “the actual wild, true ginseng that’s part of Pennsylvania’s genes” needs to be protected. To do so requires the collaborative efforts of governments and citizens to make the best decisions for ginseng.
Cliff and Randy both have considerable experience digging and growing ginseng, but they still learn from the forest. As Cliff observes, “Yeah, we’d go out during the season and look for it instead of getting right into it and digging it. We’d sit back, look, and say, ‘Hey, there’s these kinds of trees growing and it’s facing this way on the hill, at this elevation, you know, and it’s in this kind of soil.’”
When Cliff and Randy first learned the ways of the woods as teenagers, hunting ginseng was a common activity for rural Pennsylvanians, but intentionally growing ginseng in the forest was not. Randy explains, “I decided I wanted to grow some, so I started on my dad’s property. And then when I got a little bit older, I bought my own property and kept growing seeds.” He later became a licensed Pennsylvania ginseng dealer for about fifteen years, buying roots from diggers and selling them to larger buyers.
Randy’s friend Cliff became his business partner in the growing venture. Cliff recalls, “My dad showed me what ginseng was, and we started finding it and digging it and Randy started buying it. He was the local buyer in our area, and he told us how to clean it, and dry it best for the market.” Since then, Cliff and Randy have been learning how to grow ginseng together. “Nobody told us how to plant it or anything. It was all learned mostly by Randy by planting and learning how to get it to mature.”
Over the years, Cliff and Randy have noticed changes in the ginseng community. Randy talks about fewer ginseng diggers in his area: “I first started buying ginseng almost forty years ago. And I would say within a five-mile radius of my house, there was probably thirty people hunting ginseng. Now I don’t know. I don’t really have anybody hunting.”
It is not only the digging community that is changing throughout their time as “sengers,” but also the forest itself. As Randy explains, there used to be “black cohosh and maidenhair fern where the ginseng likes it. Now you go up there and it’s nothing but hay-scented fern. It takes it over. Smothers it out.”
Despite the challenges that ginseng and the community face, Cliff and Randy continue to advocate for ginseng conservation and to steward their land through their respect and knowledge of the plant.
Chef Danny Lee, owner of the popular Washington, D.C., area restaurants Mandu, Anju, and Chiko, has had a long relationship with ginseng. His first contact with the root came in his youth when his mother used ginseng-infused hanyak 한약 (traditional Korean medicine) to treat a medical condition he had as a child. She referred to ginseng as the “milk of the soul,” and although he did not enjoy the taste, it helped improve his appetite. Even now, Lee uses ginseng at home to settle his stomach, aid his digestion, and boost his metabolism and energy levels. Lee observes, “At home, we drink a lot of ginseng tea, especially in the winter. It is great for the immune system and it provides that good energy where I don’t dip and crash too much, like if you drink a pot of coffee in the morning.”
Lee has used ginseng in a number of ways on his menus as well. Lee and his mother served a ginseng-and-honey tea gratis to their customers when they first opened Mandu in 2006. However, they stopped serving it after a couple of months due to the unpopularity of the drink. “We thought it would be a fun, kind of quirky way to introduce small aspects of the Korean culture subtly into Western society, but after a month people were like, ‘What are we drinking?’” Lee recalls.
Washington, D.C., customers may not have been ready for ginseng at that time, but Lee knows that American palates have changed and have become more “adventurous” when it comes to Korean food—thanks to the popularity of samgyetang 삼계탕, a ginseng chicken soup served at his restaurant Anju. Although Lee uses the same ingredients as the traditional version, he prepares the rice separately from the chicken, making it into a rice porridge that is fortified with a stock that has “tons of ginseng in it.”
Lee suggests that the popularity of the dish is due not only to the “harmony” of flavors, which helps ease the diner into the strong taste of ginseng, but also because Americans have become more health conscious in recent years. Since the pandemic, Lee thinks more about the connections between body and food. “Korean food is honestly medicine. We want to explore how to implement some of these medicinal roots, ginseng included, into our cooking a bit more in a subtle way, whereby eating, you can get a delicious dish, but it is actually boosting your immune system a little bit.”
Lee also plans to introduce more ginseng-infused dishes and drinks to his menu. For Lee, the challenge is taking this “uniquely Korean, a very ubiquitous Korean root, that is kind of interwoven with society,” and finding ways to make it “more Korean” by subtly using it throughout his cooking. Even though it is not an easy task, Lee believes that it is important to “carry on a legacy that promotes some of the beauty and health aspects of Korean cuisine, ginseng being on the top of that list.”
Doug Manning enjoyed spending time in the woods behind his grandparents’ house when he was growing up in Pennsylvania. In college, he developed a passion for ginseng while studying dendrology—the science of trees—under prominent ginseng expert Dr. Eric Burkhart at Penn State University. “I was really fascinated by his knowledge base and wanted to get involved in understanding foraging better.”
Manning first found ginseng in the wild while exploring some forest lands owned by the university. “It’s kind of like a game. I can kind of gauge what the soil conditions are from a chemistry perspective based on the plants growing there.”
Poaching is always an issue with ginseng on public lands, one that Manning and the law enforcement officers he works with take very seriously. “Our law enforcement officers arrest ginseng poachers every single year. Unfortunately, it is always a losing battle as we are only going to catch so many poachers.”
Additionally, Manning has another concern. Illegal farming of ginseng on public lands may result in the introduction of non-local ginseng stock, the cheapest and most plentiful of which are seeds from ginseng farms where seed provenance is uncertain. This means that local ginseng could crossbreed with ginseng that evolved hundreds of miles away, possibly resulting in the loss of important genetic adaptations that have helped it survive in its West Virginia habitat for generations. Manning believes it is important to preserve those native genetics by preventing poaching and illegal forest farming on National Park Service lands.
Manning advocates for the practice of forest farming on private land. “It can be a really cool concept for integrating agricultural and ecological principles into land management.” Several years ago, he and some friends purchased a forest plot, which they use for hunting and growing goldenseal, bloodroot, ostrich-fern, blue cohosh, black cohosh, ramps, chestnuts, pawpaw, persimmons, and ginseng.
“That’s part of how I became familiar with some of the seed sourcing for it.” Growing ginseng helps Manning “speak other folks’ languages” as well as to empathize and connect with how people feel about ginseng.
Manning also advocates for sustainable ginseng farming in West Virginia. “Aside from a species becoming listed under the Endangered Species Act, we don’t really have a good way of being forced into a concerted effort in conservation measures for single taxon [one species and sometimes its close relatives]. Ginseng is a good one for land managers to take on as an opportunity to try and create more coordinated and regional efforts to protect and conserve the species. I hope that it becomes its own catalyst to doing that kind of work across boundaries before we get to the point where we’re concerned about its viability in the long term as a species.”
With Manning watching over them, the hills and bends of the New, Bluestone, and Gauley rivers will likely stay rich with ginseng.
When Edward Burlett moved from California to Virginia, he knew a lot about plants from working in the greenhouse industry but very little about ginseng. Seventeen years ago, he started as an agricultural inspector in the Office of Plant Industry Services for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS). Now, he is the regional supervisor overseeing ginseng certifications for Southwestern Virginia, which produces most of the ginseng in the Commonwealth.
Because American ginseng is listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), all sales must be closely regulated. Burlett explained the process by which an inspector certifies ginseng for a licensed dealer: “Dealers will contact VDACS requesting an appointment. We arrange the meeting with the ginseng dealer. When we meet with the dealer to certify their ginseng, we inspect the ginseng to make sure that the ginseng is what the dealer claims it is.” Then the inspector weighs a representative sample of the harvested ginseng, conducts a root count, ages the ginseng, records the data, and closely reviews the dealer’s paperwork for accuracy.
Burlett explains, “We verify that if their records say they bought forty-three pounds, we know we have forty-three pounds here to be certified.”
Most dealers strive to comply with ginseng regulations and act as an extra level of scrutiny for ginseng diggers to ensure that roots are harvested legally. However, some dealers may not be as diligent about following regulations. For example, in one memorable inspection, Burlett noticed some underage roots and set them aside, explaining that the dealer needed to be more careful about buying underage roots because they would not be certified. As he continued to inspect the ginseng, the dealer’s wife suddenly grabbed the underage roots, stuffed them into her mouth, and devoured all the evidence of illegal activity.
Burlett and his inspectors “want a continuous crop of ginseng; we want it to survive and flourish in the forest, so it’s important that people learn and understand how to properly harvest the ginseng so that we don’t lose it.” The watchful eyes of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services help to ensure the sustainable harvest of wild ginseng in the Commonwealth in accordance with CITES and state law.
E. Lucy Braun devoted her life to the study and teaching of plant ecology and conservation, earning a master’s degree in geology and a PhD in botany from the University of Cincinnati at a time when women typically did not follow this career path. Even before attending university, she began collecting plant specimens, including a four-pronged ginseng plant collected in June 1903 before the red berries appeared, which then made its way to the Smithsonian’s National Herbarium.
Growing up in Cincinnati with parents who encouraged observation and documentation of the outdoor environs, Braun and her sister Annette started early on what would become distinguished careers in botany and entomology, respectively. Decades of research trips by the sisters took them deep into the forests of the Appalachian Mountains throughout Ohio and Kentucky and covering lots of ground.
The sisters traveled approximately 65,000 miles in their explorations of deciduous forests of the Eastern United States; Annette claimed they walked twenty-four miles in one day. Braun writes of enlisting local people to find paths through the woods and even skirting illegal whiskey stills hidden deep in the Kentucky woods during Prohibition. One can only imagine how many ginseng plants they may have encountered during those excursions.
A trail blazer in many ways, Braun was a tireless and dedicated conservationist and ecologist who expanded plant ecology into an academic discipline, taught for many years, and mentored countless students. She made important contributions to the literature in her field, culminating with Deciduous Forests of Eastern Northern America (1950). The book describes the relationships between organisms and their environments, as well as their relationships to each other—at the time a revolutionary approach to the field. Recognition for her work resulted in many awards and recognitions, including appointment as the first woman president of the Ohio Academy of Science, the first woman president of the Ecological Society of America, and named by the American Botanical Society as one of only three women among the Fifty Most Outstanding Botanists.
Braun’s formidable plant collection grew to 12,000 species from her youth to the time of her death in 1971. The University of Cincinnati houses most of her collection and other archival materials about her work and life, but the Smithsonian is fortunate to have some 7,730 dried plant specimens that Braun collected over her lifetime, as well as an album of photos from her field excursions to the Appalachian region. Curiously, it contains only the one ginseng specimen.
In a 1935 speech to “Save the Big Trees” on Leatherwood Creek, Perry County, Kentucky, Braun asks, “Why not save a piece of your native country, your native state, in its original condition as a monument to the original beauty and grandeur of your forests, just as you save an historical shrine?” Lucy Braun’s dedication to preserving and protecting forests and nature has made it possible for American ginseng and other forest medicinals to continue to thrive in their natural environments.
The human connection to plants is what drives Eric Burkhart’s research interests. He grew up in western Pennsylvania with an interest in the outdoors, including ginseng “hunting.” He attributes a summer-long trip to Central America, where he conducted ethnobotany fieldwork while pursuing his undergraduate degree, as the inspiration for his decision to move back to Pennsylvania and study Appalachian non-timber forest products.
Burkhart now focuses on the medicinal and cultural uses of several important native Appalachian forest plants. He recalls, “I saw that the same scientific questions and conservation needs that I was trying to address in my international work were also true closer to home, in Appalachia.” And so began his two-decade fascination with American ginseng and its inextricable cultural ties to his own region.
Burkhart has been conducting an annual survey of ginseng sellers for the past ten years to gain insight into planting and trade within the state of Pennsylvania. Results of the survey help gauge how much ginseng is harvested each year, a necessary measure to track exports of the state-listed vulnerable plant. He also tracks its sources and whether it was wild, cultivated, or somewhere in between.
The title “wild,” if intended to mean untouched or separate from human interaction, is a misnomer, according to Burkhart. He observes, “There are very few populations out there in the United States, at this point in history, that have not been impacted by people on an ongoing basis, either through harvesting, harvesting and replanting, or establishment of new populations.” Due to its vibrant cultural significance, the strategies used to conserve ginseng differ from that of other wild plant species. In fact, Burkhart goes on to speculate that “if we didn’t start to cultivate American ginseng a hundred years ago, it probably would be completely gone.”
The relationship between cultivated and wild ginseng is even more complicated. A market has developed around cultivated ginseng, which has helped wild ginseng conservation. Yet, as Burkhart explains, “There is still a persistent demand for wild because of the demand based within traditional Chinese medicine and other cultural predilections.” This demand for “true wild” ginseng creates a vast dollar value difference, still attracting many harvesters to search for ginseng in the wild and sometimes to steal wild ginseng from public and private lands.
Many people continue to dig and sell wild roots legally and ethically, and to steward populations along the way. Planting seeds within ginseng populations or establishing new patches on one’s own land promotes “conservation through cultivation,” a strategy that Burkhart encourages as one way to relieve the harvesting pressure on wild ginseng.
Burkhart’s work inspires those who care about American ginseng to share responsibility for and contribute to its conservation. His work helps educate ginseng enthusiasts about best practices in keeping with the plant’s best interests. “We need to find that middle ground of connections and be able to figure out how we can collaborate and work together,” Burkhart hopes. “We all have an individual role to play when it comes to sustaining this resource.”
For several generations, members of Fran Day’s family were coal miners and farmers, and she is quick to note the hardships they endured. “We lived a subsistence existence. We made our own clothes, we grew our own food, we lived on top of a mountain on a farm, and it was an interesting way to grow up. We didn’t have running water or electricity; we lived in a house where you put rags and paper in the cracks to keep the bugs and the snakes from coming in.”
Day’s stepfather first introduced her to ginseng digging after the coal mine where he worked closed in the 1950s. Tennessee remained a “dry” state, even after Prohibition ended, so he also taught her the art of making moonshine while avoiding the law. One trick was to bake bread during the process so that the smoke and aromas would detract from the real business at hand. Made in proper barrels with a copper still, and with homemade cornmeal and malt, the family’s moonshine was among the best in the area.
Descended from “mountain people,” Day’s stepfather was familiar with the lay of the land. He and Day dug ginseng in season, sometimes visiting the closely guarded and secret patches in parts of the Cumberland Plateau nicknamed “No Business” because, according to Day, people had no business being there amid moonshine stills in operation. Families in those parts ensured that the plants thrived from year to year because they knew all too well that the ginseng patches provided much-needed income.
Day and her stepfather knew instinctively what to look for. “There were all kinds of things you had to look at, like the color of the leaves, the size of the stem, where the new growth was, where it was in the patch; ideally it would be in the center what you would leave and you would take from around the edges. But, of course, that wasn’t always possible because sometimes it didn’t grow according to the laws of humans, it grew according to the laws of ginseng. We were digging what we could find as much as we could without harming the patch.”
To safeguard this part of their livelihood, Day and her stepfather were very careful to conserve the patches. They left the older plants to propagate and the younger ones for the roots to grow and mature; they never took more than half of a patch and painstakingly dug to get the entire root. Day and her stepfather did not revisit patches in successive years unless there were enough plants continually growing there. “But sometimes we would come back, and a raider would be through and the patch would be gone. And as time went on, many of the patches had gone.”
Day credits her current position with the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts to her subsistence upbringing, making moonshine, digging ginseng, and earning money any way possible. As an institution that has taught Appalachian craft since 1912, Arrowmont is a welcome and calm haven just steps from Gatlinburg’s heavily touristed main street where shops and restaurants perpetuate the “hillbilly” stereotype. Day takes it all in stride: “As hillbillies, we’re going to let you make fun of us all you want to, and we’re going to join right in and laugh, but then we’re going to take your money to the bank.”
Widely recognized as the founder of the cultivated ginseng industry, George Stanton was a retired tinsmith and avid “senger.” In 1885, even though a friend described him as frail and in poor health, Stanton was still harvesting ginseng in the wild when he relocated some of those plants to his own garden. Through meticulous observation and force of will, he eventually achieved truly impressive root harvests with forest seed beds and a lengthy maturation period.
Working on his root beds helped Stanton regain his waning health and embody his catchphrase, “wear out, not rust out.” He later became the first president of the New York Ginseng Growers Association (est. 1902) and frequently contributed columns for a variety of publications, such as Special Crops, the association’s official journal.
In that very journal in 1908, appeared Stanton’s obituary, written by his close friend, J.K. Bramer, who described Stanton’s devotion to his craft: “The tenderness with which he would handle the little roots, which he called his ‘babies,’ would remind you of the care a mother would show in the tucking away of a real baby in its little bed.” Those little beds grew to encompass a large artificially shaded garden and an even larger forest nursery, which thrived under Stanton’s tending.
Shortly after Stanton’s death, his contributions appeared in Arthur Robert Harding’s Ginseng and Other Medicinal Plants (1908), a seminal publication that helped elevate the industry to new heights. Harding was a mysterious character, whose first business venture began at fourteen, when he was buying and selling furs in the Ohio River Valley. His avid outdoorsmanship and entrepreneurial spirit may have led him to hunting wild ginseng, which like hunting or trapping animals, has been a money-making endeavor since the eighteenth century. Cultivating the elusive and notoriously finicky forest plant takes years of patience and husbandry skills, which Harding’s publication explains for those who wish to try.
Seemingly an educator at heart, Harding also ran three of his own publishing companies alongside his fur business and outdoor adventures. His other publications centered on hunting, fishing, and trapping, but Ginseng and Other Medicinal Plants remains one of his most popular and was re-released twice in his lifetime.
By the time of his death in 1930, A.R. Harding was a household name alongside George Stanton in the niche world of ginseng cultivation. Their mutual colleague, Charles M. Goodspeed, published and edited much of their works, including a final version of Ginseng and Other Medicinal Plants in 1936. Stanton and Harding helped set the stage for American ginseng cultivation, which now is a multi-million-dollar industry.
Since 2011, Iris Gao has been at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) researching herbal medicine, specifically the biological and pharmaceutical properties of medicinal plants. While studying the authenticity of herbs in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) with collaborators in China, she realized American ginseng’s potential. Further research revealed that Tennessee is the best place to study this plant because so much wild American ginseng grows there. She was in the right place.
“TCM believes that the effect of an herb is related to its geological source,” Gao explains. “Each herb has its own authentic origin, and the herb that comes from that region is the most effective. The best Asian ginseng would be those [plants] from the Changbai Mountains [on the Chinese/North Korean border]. And if you want to study TCM herbs here in the United States, there is only one geo-authentic herb you can find—American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius.”
Gao and her team concentrate their research on the micropropagation of ginseng plants, and possible uses of ginseng leaf. In conducting her research, Gao has collaborated with other departments at MTSU, with farmers and ginseng dealers throughout Tennessee, and with research organizations in China.
Growing wild-simulated American ginseng (using the natural wooded environment with shade and nutrient exchange between plants) could become a major source of income for Tennessee forest farmers. But it takes seven to ten years before the slow-growing ginseng roots are large enough to be harvested if started from seed. In her lab, Gao uses tissue samples from a mother plant, producing a large number of rootlets that shorten the growing time at a lower cost than other commercially available rootlets.
“By doing this, the almost three-year germination and shooting period of ginseng can be shortened to just a few months.” Micropropagation also maintains the ginsenosides found in wild American ginseng, the pharmacologically active compounds in ginseng which make it so valuable.
Gao has also been studying the ginsenosides in the leaves of American ginseng plants. Currently, ginseng root is mainly used for medicine in TCM. If the leaf is proven to be as pharmacologically active as the root, it could help conserve endangered ginseng plants. “We are exploring the effectiveness of using ginseng leaf as medicine. In this way, we can avoid destructive harvesting. You don’t need to dig out the whole plant, you can just collect the leaves.”
COVID-19 unexpectedly gave Gao time away from her lab to pursue her hobby of quilting. Naturally, she created ginseng patterns for two of the quilts. “After all, American ginseng and quilting are both deep-rooted traditions here in Tennessee.”
Debates have surrounded the welfare and well-being of wild American ginseng since its first export overseas. However, thanks to plant demographic research spanning some twenty-five years, a West Virginia University lab led by James McGraw has finally determined that wild populations of American ginseng are, in fact, threatened. Bad harvesting techniques, deer browsing, disease, habitat degradation, and the effects of climate change all recall the Chinese concept of lingchi, “death by a thousand cuts,” a fate that may befall ginseng.
McGraw shares these findings in his book, Wild American Ginseng: Lessons for Conservation in the Age of Humans (2021). By mixing approachable language with hard science, McGraw recalls his training both as a professional and as the son of a scientist; accessibility matters as much as accuracy.
McGraw intersperses anecdotes from the field and lab with many informative scientific tables, figures, and recommendations for policy change. For instance, a survey team once chanced upon two poachers who had just taken most of their survey patch. Only after the men had already left did the researchers realize what had happened, and that the men would have made excellent interview candidates. To illustrate how stewardship can change over time, the book also includes a handful of short stories that bring to life the multi-generational “senging” traditions of Appalachian families.
On the importance of ginseng in science, McGraw maintains, “If [scientists] can figure out why a certain minority of populations are doing well, while the majority are doing poorly, the answers to conservation lie in knowledge of the difference!” Ginseng is an excellent study subject because of its similarity to many other vulnerable understory species, which makes it a “canary in the coal mine.” Suffering ginseng populations may reveal which threats are most severe when compared to healthy populations across the forest floor.
Students who conducted research based on the larger demographic study helped illuminate more crucial aspects of ginseng’s natural history. Undergraduate and graduate students alike engaged in a variety of studies—such as setting up motion-sensitive cameras to track wild animals in ginseng patches, analyzing deer droppings, and gauging ginseng’s reactions to changing weather patterns. As a result, researchers found good news that wood thrushes distribute ginseng seeds successfully where deer do not. However, they also found bad news: the plants’ regional adaptations may spell disaster as the climate continues to shift.
Much of the data from McGraw and his team points to an overall decline in wild American ginseng; unchecked, this could lead to its eventual extinction. However, McGraw’s personal philosophy favors resolute optimism in the face of great challenges; the final two chapters of his book contain solutions for many groups—from regulators to the general public—to project a thriving future for ginseng. “Ginseng teaches us the value of taking the long view, in which rewards endure across generations. Ginseng offers the opportunity to rewrite the story of our relationship to wild species.”
When most people think of ginseng and its habitat, Alabama doesn’t always come to mind. Jim Hamilton begs to differ, as he has found very old patches of the plant thriving in the northern portion of his home state. Alabama is one of the nineteen states from which it is legal to harvest and sell ginseng internationally.
Nowadays, Hamilton’s home is Boone, North Carolina. As extension director of Watauga County, he works with the forest farming of ginseng and other botanicals. His passion for the plant is immediately evident from framed specimens and artwork depicting ginseng, jars of preserved roots, and books about ginseng lining the shelves of his office.
Hamilton offers workshops to potential ginseng growers and has cultivated a group of established local growers who have begun sharing information. “That’s sort of unheard of for growing ginseng in North Carolina because it is such an understated and hush-hush sort of industry,” Hamilton admits and adds with a smile, “Anybody who dabbles in ginseng knows that the first rule of ginseng club is you don’t talk about ginseng club.”
Along with practical information about how to start growing ginseng, Hamilton cautions potential growers about ginseng predators—not only critters such as deer and voles, which love to snack on ginseng leaves or roots, but also fellow humans. Forest-grown ginseng can be “easy pickings” for those who know its high value. “They call it poaching, but it’s outright theft,” Hamilton says.
Hamilton feels strongly that North Carolina and growers elsewhere should, if possible, plant ginseng seeds or legally obtained seedlings that originate from wild local ginseng stock. One of his missions is to encourage growers to help build a stock of ginseng genetics specific to western North Carolina by transplanting some of the roots they’re harvesting and managing seed production from those wild plants.
Educational messaging comes in many forms, and highly readable fiction is one of the most powerful methods of informing wide audiences about the plant. Finding few popular books or programs about ginseng that are accurate, Hamilton first developed a movie script with a retired Hollywood screenwriter and then novelized the story to write The Last Entry (2019). Set in Appalachia, the book follows the fictional Tucker Trivette through the legacy of ginseng he inherits from his grandfather. Along the way, he dabbles in illegal ginseng digging, learns how to grow Christmas trees as well as ginseng, and encounters a variety of characters including a potential love interest whose Chinese American family exports ginseng.
The book demonstrates the deep knowledge that Hamilton has gathered during his twenty-plus years of working with ginseng harvesters, growers, dealers, and researchers, as well as his love for Appalachia. “I’m an educator, so I snuck in as many teaching moments on growing Christmas trees and ginseng as I could along with the storytelling,” Hamilton admits.
Joe Pigmon owes much of his knowledge of ginseng to his “Pawpaw” Bill, a good friend and mentor who deeply knows the lore of woods and plants. Bill taught Pigmon where to find the “mountain monsters,” the big, old ginseng plants that are like trophies to ginseng hunters. Bill also taught Pigmon the importance of stewarding the ginseng population, making sure not to overharvest and to ensure that ginseng remains in the woods for future generations. Many of Pigmon’s happiest memories are being in the forest with Pawpaw Bill, looking for ginseng. For him, being in nature is “where I feel at home.”
Unfortunately, the woods near Pigmon’s home are not a pristine wilderness. The coal industry has left visible scars on the landscape due to large-scale surface mining that removes mountaintops and destroys forest ecosystems to get the last seams of coal buried in the mountains. To Pigmon, the value of these last bits of coal is “minuscule … nowhere in comparison to the herbals, the botanicals that they pushed off the mountain… There’s no mountain left. From ten years ago, even fifteen years ago, it wasn’t like that. But all of a sudden it was just all gone.”
Pigmon’s hope for the future of his community is that people will rediscover the value of forest products. Sometimes he fears this is an uphill battle, but he’s also seen a rise in hiking and other outdoor pursuits that could mean change on the horizon. For many, ginseng is the only forest botanical that they know about, so Pigmon tries to teach them sustainable ways to harvest: always wait until the berries are ripe, make sure to replant the berries, and avoid harvesting the big mother plants that produce lots of seeds every year.
Pigmon also promotes forest farming of ginseng, because ginseng cultivated in areas that resemble its natural habitat may take pressure off truly wild populations. Lastly, he makes a point of telling people about the wide variety of forest botanicals other than ginseng that may be sold for good money—like witch hazel, slippery elm bark, black cohosh, and many kinds of edible mushrooms. If more people know about the wealth of botanical resources in the eastern Kentucky woods, perhaps there would be less temptation to overharvest wild ginseng.
Pigmon wants to leave the woods a better place than he found them. Every year, he makes a point of hiking around the hills and hollers he loves, planting ginseng seeds. Perhaps Pigmon won’t be the one to harvest the “sang” he planted when it is ready ten or fifteen years later, but he hopes that future generations will.
With a master’s degree in geography, Joshua Albritton knows his way around forests and mountains. After graduating from the University of Tennessee, he interned within the Inventory & Monitoring Branch at the Smokies, then started full-time as a bioscience technician. He has remained in that position for nine years, working on a variety of field projects and other collateral duties. In 2018, he became the park’s lead for rare-plant monitoring programs.
Albritton helps to protect the park’s many species of rare plants that may be threatened, endangered, and/or culturally significant. Those at risk for poaching—such as American ginseng—are of special concern. Climate, elevation, and mountainous terrain combine to make the almost 850-square-mile park an area rich in diversity and good habitat for ginseng but also make the park attractive for illegal collectors.
Since 1992, park law enforcement, park resource managers, and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture have been working cooperatively in marking ginseng roots to deter poaching, and replanting roots that are confiscated. Law enforcement rangers have seized thousands of roots since the program began in the early 1990s. Albritton and others evaluate the confiscated ginseng roots for injuries and overall health status, and then replant roughly seventy-five percent of them in the park within thirty to sixty days.
“By and large, we try to put almost everything back in the ground, unless the damage is extensive enough that the likelihood that the plant would survive is fairly low,” Albritton says. Poachers caught with ginseng from the park face monetary penalties and sometimes jail time, but there are still repeat offenders. Albritton believes that some poachers learn through family tradition because “they seem to know what they’re doing,” and they may not see their actions as criminal.
Unfortunately, only fifty percent of the confiscated and replanted roots survive once they go back into the ground. Albritton does all he can to make sure the plants grow back as intended. He keeps them away from roads, trails, and easy access points in order to make them harder to find, and he revisits planting sites on annual rotations to gauge the overall health and survival of the ginseng. Park resource managers recently produced a habitat ginseng model that enables park staff to locate good ginseng habitat more efficiently.
The united efforts of the law enforcement division and resource managers at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park help to ensure that ginseng doesn’t disappear from the park altogether. Still, Albritton fears for the future of wild populations. Sadly, “good-sized natural populations are really hard to find,” he reports; and continued poaching pressure in the park makes the recovery of individual replanted populations relatively rare. Until better measures can be taken, Albritton retreats deeper and deeper into the backcountry of the Smokies searching for places where he hopes poachers will not find the replanted ginseng.
Since the mid-1980s, Jun Wen has been studying the evolutionary history of the ginseng family to answer the question, how can closely related plant species occur on two continents, thousands of miles apart? This distribution pattern, known as disjunction, is a particular area of interest for Wen, an evolutionary botanist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
In China, Wen’s grandfather practiced Traditional Chinese Medicine in her home village. Wen showed early interests and talent in medicinal herbs, but as the daughter—and furthermore as the doctor’s daughter’s daughter—she could never take over the family business. “I am two places wrong,” Wen laughed. Yet, her enthusiasm for plants led her to become a successful botanist and evolutionary biologist—and, luckily for us, a ginseng expert.
Wen and her research associates have carefully studied Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), which grew most abundantly before near-extinction along the border of China, Russia, and North Korea, and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), found wild in the Appalachian and Ozark Mountain regions and upper Midwestern areas of North America. Their goal is to unlock the mysteries of their disjunction.
Wen uses such tools as living plants, preserved specimens, DNA samples, distribution information, and software and computer programs. She has analyzed 356 samples of ginseng from 47 populations collected across its entire distributional range. Her method for each is the same: she pinches off a small piece of leaf from every sample and extracts the same DNA sequences from them. Then she lets the machines and computer do their work. By tracing DNA changes, mapping sample distributions, and extrapolating dates of DNA sequences inferred from fossils, Wen can calculate the evolutionary trajectory of the ginseng species and reconstruct what happened where and when.
But how did these two plants settle at opposite sides of the globe? Her conclusion is that the ancestor of American ginseng left its Asian kin and dispersed more than 14 million years ago across the Bering Land Bridge that connected present-day Russia and Alaska. Different ginseng species then evolved on the two separate lands. The seed eventually took root in the mountains and forests across eastern North America, in a similar environment to its original habitat in the temperate forest areas of Asia.
The journey of ginseng has bridged the oldest and the youngest empires bound by the Pacific Ocean, connecting the natural history and human knowledge of the Eastern and Western worlds. Wen is still collecting samples across ginseng’s natural habitats on both continents. Employing cutting-edge techniques in her study, she hopes to elaborate on the evolutionary story of ginseng.
Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, Karam Sheban remembers spending hours in an urban stream with his friends, thinking it a vast wilderness. His family’s trips to rural Michigan seemed like great adventures, which furthered his connections to wildness. This led him to study environmental science at Ohio State University and afterwards to join Rural Action, where he first caught the ginseng “bug.”
At Rural Action, as an AmeriCorps volunteer, Sheban worked on forestry projects that were new to him: non-timber forest products. Speaking of his supervisor and mentor Tanner Filyaw, Sheban recalls, “He took me into the woods and we went hunting for ginseng. I wasn’t a ‘plant guy’ but ginseng piqued my interest.”
Ginseng sparked a deeper realization in Sheban—that “the presence of those plants on the landscape now is the result of a direct lineage of human use, as far back as we can imagine.” The interactions between humankind and ginseng are preserved to this day, namely in the form of forest farming, which Sheban studied as a graduate student and research fellow at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. His project investigated the ideal growing conditions of American ginseng, a plant that has had a long relationship with the people who depend on it.
Another project took place on the American Ginseng Pharm, a large forest-farming operation in the Catskills of upstate New York, where Sheban collected key ecological data related to the growth rates of wild-simulated ginseng crop. His findings suggest that additional sunlight could be key to growing larger, healthier plants in a wild-simulated system.
The benefits of Sheban’s research will be long-lasting. He plans on sharing his findings with landowners through workshops at Yale’s School of Forestry, which he hopes will increase productivity of wild-simulated ginseng. Forest farming could be key to the plant’s continued survival amid the increasing pressures to harvest wild ginseng.
The Harding family may have begun their ginseng-growing ventures through sheer coincidence of family name. Larry Harding’s father, Kenneth, obtained the book Ginseng and Other Medicinal Plants (originally published in 1908) by A. R. Harding—no relation. With this manual of ginseng in hand, he started experimenting, using a grape arbor as shade. Kenneth’s success led the family to move to a more rural area where they continued to grow ginseng and also (at that time) raise minks.
Larry Harding has lived there ever since and has learned a great deal more about growing ginseng after his father’s early experiments. His two sons and daughter have joined him in the business and—just like their father—are learning how finicky ginseng can be. The plant enjoys very specific things: lots of shade but some sun, enough water but not too much, and some companion plants but not the whole crowd. They also tend to grow in groups but don’t do well when they actually touch each other because disease can spread so quickly.
Tools of the trade developed by Harding include garlic and a keen eye: he sprays the plants with garlic to deter the deer that love to browse on the plant, and he is very particular about which weeds to eliminate and which to let grow alongside the ginseng. “Even though they are companion plants, you have to control them,” he explains. Some forest plants may help with the overall nutrients of the soil, but others become overbearing, such as dock. Harding either pulls these by hand or uses organic weed killers.
As if its finicky nature and natural enemies are not enough, Harding’s ginseng also has a human threat. Poachers—one of whom is a neighbor well known to the family—have discovered his plots. Harding has learned the hard way that “the law favors the poachers,” losing thousands of dollars’ worth of ginseng to illegal digging of his roots. Cameras, and even personally patrolling the growing area, can only do so much in deterring a determined poacher.
In the small office near the family home, Harding shows off his prized collection of ginseng art and specimens, one of which he calls his “million-dollar root.” Resting in its alcohol base, it resembles a chubby man running. A poster featuring this root—produced for the now-defunct American Ginseng Museum in San Francisco—is one of the many framed works of art, ginseng-themed photographs, and certificates of merit adorning the walls of the office. Bottles full of ginseng wine, other distinctive roots preserved in alcohol, and more products line the display shelves.
The Hardings are one of the few ginseng growers to also produce a ginseng berry juice made from the ripe red fruit of the plant after the valuable seeds are removed. Some of their clients swear by this product as a treatment for diabetes and weight loss. Their method of making the juice remains a family secret but is very popular with Harding’s Korean and Korean American clients, who believe “the more bitter, the rawer, the more effective.” Marketing other parts of the plant, such as the berries, is one way to keep the growing ginseng in forested land profitable and beneficial. “You get a great deal of pride doing this,” Harding concludes.
Laurie Quesinberry did not grow up in the Appalachian Mountains. But, as she says, she chose them and they chose her. She came from Florida, where her father held itinerant jobs, but once she found herself in southwestern Virginia as an adult, she felt she always belonged.
Quesinberry gained knowledge of Appalachian forests and plants from different individuals, including her husband’s grandmother, known to all as Granny. She also spent many hours alone in the forest, observing plants and learning their life cycles and growing habits. She is passionate about rescuing ginseng and other native plants endangered due to construction projects, logging, and other habitat loss.
She firmly believes that those who live in the culture know the most about ginseng and should be rightfully recognized as having expert knowledge on the plant and its stewardship. Quesinberry remains wary of scientists, botanists, and ginseng regulators, who “marginalize you if you chose this type of life, or because you’re stuck in this kind of life. And they don’t value what you say.”
Quesinberry’s personal conservation methods follow the traditions practiced in the region for generations. These include harvesting only when the plants mature in the fall, digging only older plants to allow younger ones to thrive, and replanting seeds. Recently, Quesinberry is sharing her knowledge through workshops and classes.
Ginseng is like one of her children. Caring for the plant and other forest botanicals is integral to her life. “If you tell me not to dig ginseng, it’s like taking away my two legs.”
Mary Lawson recalls the first time she went out ginseng digging with her brother in her home area of Tazewell, Virginia. “My brother gave me a little plant that he had found. He said, ‘Look for this.’ And I found several bunches the first couple times I went. I was surprised.” That was the beginning of the accumulation of a lifetime of knowledge about the plant, which led eventually to becoming a ginseng dealer.
In 1985, Lawson and her ex-husband began the business of buying herbs and recycling metals in Buchanan County, Virginia. Because the herb business is seasonal (American ginseng harvest season in Virginia is September 1 to November 30 and dealers have until March 31 to sell the product), many dealers combine buying herbs with other livelihoods. After they divorced, Lawson continued the business, moving in 1996 to her present location in Abingdon.
Over the years, she has learned many valuable lessons. “You can go bankrupt real quick if you don’t know what you’re doing.” She has gradually developed “regulars” from whom she buys each season. She “trains” them in proper ways to dig, clean, dry, and handle the ginseng roots. Their friendly relationship extends past buying and selling: some bring her holiday gifts and baked goods, and she worries over the health of those who are ailing.
When asked about the future of ginseng digging and trade, Lawson calls for better education—not only on ginseng, but also on other forest medicinal plants—to protect and conserve them in the wild. Ginseng that is wild-simulated or woods-grown (cultivated in a natural setting) will never replace wild ginseng, according to Lawson. “It’s just so much prettier,” she says.
About being a woman in a man’s business, Lawson muses, “Most people don’t consider this a woman’s kind of work. But I’ve raised my daughter, sent her through school. I’ve got two grandsons...I work every day, I pay my workers, pay my bills, and keep the wolves away from the door, that’s the main thing.”
One of the biggest threats to wild ginseng’s future is people digging out of season “for a quick buck.” Another is that older, experienced diggers are increasingly unable to get into the woods, and also are not sharing their knowledge with the younger generation. Still, Lawson hopes that the ginseng trade will last into her grandsons’ generation and beyond. “This plant will be good to you, if you treat it right.”
Paul Hsu still tears up when he recounts one of the lowest moments in his long American ginseng growing career. In 2010, while he was out of town visiting his eldest son, a heavy, early snow arrived and collapsed the shade cloth structures protecting the 200 acres of ginseng under cultivation on his farm. “I think we are done,” he recalls thinking, noting he believes his wife cried harder at that moment than when her parents passed away.
Perseverance, rising prices of ginseng, and much labor on the part of the family and their workers got the Hsus through this disaster and to the successful international business they oversee today. But that story is the backdrop to the many hurdles Hsu and his family had to face to reach this point. Many years of his wife supporting the family through her job as a nurse, the trials and errors of cultivating a notoriously sensitive plant, and the ups and downs of the ginseng market in Asia and American trade policy are only a few of the problems they have encountered.
Hsu has a personal and heartfelt connection to American ginseng that inspired him to become a grower and to keep moving forward in the business. After he came from Taiwan to study in the United States in the late 1960s, his father reported that his mother’s health was declining. Though ginseng is not as commonly used for medicine in Taiwan as it is in mainland China, and is very expensive there, Hsu knew of its health properties. He sent some home from Wisconsin, where he was working. Within a year, his mother’s health had improved significantly, which Hsu saw firsthand when he visited Taiwan for his parent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary.
“It made a believer of me,” he remembers.
Along with learning the ins and outs of cultivating the plant and obtaining good business skills, it was necessary for Hsu to find reliable workers to start his farm and exporting business. Growing ginseng as a crop under artificial shade—as they do in Marathon County—is highly labor intensive. Seed planting, spraying USDA-sanctioned fungicides and pesticides, weeding and harvesting all require a large work force. Over the years, Hsu found that Hmong families, many of whom settled in Wisconsin and other midwestern states as refugees after persecution during the Vietnam War, were handy and eager for work. Starting with a husband and wife in 1974 and expanding to children, nieces, and nephews, the Hsus have employed many Hmong over the years and sing their praises as being the backbone of the ginseng industry in Wisconsin.
Today, Hsu’s eldest son, Will, runs most of the business, but Hsu is still very involved in day-to-day activities and to promote the conservation of American ginseng. He maintains a small experimental wild-simulated ginseng patch where he nurtures ginseng plants obtained from different states; and he delights in showing visitors the regional variations. His interest in regulating the harvest of wild ginseng harvest dates to the 1970s, when he was instrumental in establishing rules that led to Wisconsin being the first state to require a license for ginseng dealers. He has also supported raising the minimum age for harvesting wild ginseng from five to ten years.
He feels that digging wild ginseng is a “special privilege” and that many diggers need to know more about the plant’s endangered status in order to join in the conservation effort. “If we don’t do something now, it will be too late.”
How did two men originally from opposite ends of the country and with very different backgrounds end up working together in southeastern Ohio to help conserve and educate about American ginseng and other forest botanicals? For Paul Strauss, who grew up in New York City, and Tanner Filyaw, originally from Washington State, their paths were different but led to the formation of a great team.
Strauss began his quest to learn about plants and become self-sufficient during the Vietnam War era. Jailed for protesting the war and traumatized by the deaths of friends who served, he embarked on a road trip across America, gaining survival skills and knowledge of nature along the way. Strauss met Native Americans who were kind enough to share their traditions, including a Shoshone man who became his first teacher. While working his way back east, Strauss helped some strangers change a tire and they brought him to Ohio. Learning that botanical plants are plentiful in the southeastern part of the state, which is considered part of Appalachia, he eventually bought a farm in the area with a friend. Strauss began his business, Equinox Botanicals, in the 1980s by perfecting a botanical salve to ease common aches, pains, and injuries caused by farm work.
Filyaw came to southeastern Ohio to attend college at Ohio University in Athens, which is close to both Strauss’s farm and the United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary in Rutland. After graduating in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in environmental geography and a minor in environmental and plant biology, Filyaw joined the local not-for-profit Rural Action through AmeriCorps to work on its Sustainable Forestry Program. He became a staff member at Rural Action in 2008, conducting education and outreach programs on sustainable forestry, land stewardship, and the production of non-timber forest products. Although he later earned a master’s in environmental studies from Ohio University, Filyaw readily acknowledges that he has learned a great deal about plants of the Appalachian forests from Strauss and other mentors.
Strauss’s stepdaughter, Lonnie Galt-Theis, is also active in ensuring the sustainability of what the land has to offer in her roles as co-owner, herbalist, and educator with Equinox Botanicals, and as Filyaw’s life partner. “She’s planted a lot of ginseng over the last several years. A lot more wild-simulated for the future of the business,” Strauss says proudly. Along with Strauss and Filyaw, Galt-Theis works on educational programming, often in conjunction with United Plant Savers, their neighbors down the road. She also runs Sassafras Camp, a summer nature-and-arts camp begun by her mother. The family’s efforts to educate, steward wild plants, and encourage forest farming demonstrate what committed individuals can do to promote the future of American ginseng and other native Appalachian botanicals. As Filyaw says, “We’re here for a short period of time. The forest is here for a long period of time.”
Pierre Jartoux, a French Jesuit working in the calendar bureau of the Chinese court beginning in 1701, was one of very few missionaries acknowledged for his cartography skills by Emperor Kangxi. The Emperor himself tasked Jartoux with creating a map of the entire Chinese empire, but Jartoux could not resist furthering his interest in herbal medicine along the way. Ginseng, which he discovered from the locals to be an important herb in Chinese traditional medicine, particularly captivated him: “I observed the state of my pulse, and then took half of the root, raw as it was and unprepared: in an hour after I found my pulse much fuller and quicker, I had an appetite, and found myself much more vigorous, and could bear labor much better and more easily than before.”
He wrote his first report on ginseng’s health benefits in 1709, calling it the “chief of plants,” and in 1711 followed up with another paper, in which he predicted that ginseng might also grow in Canada due to its similar climate to Manchuria. This report made its way to Rome, through the Vatican, and on to Canada, where it reached Joseph-François Lafitau.
Lafitau was an ambitious early ethnographer, as well as a missionary among the Iroquois, in what is now Quebec. Today, he is acknowledged for his descriptions of Native cultures which avoided comparing them unfavorably to European culture. Like Jartoux, he had an interest in plant lore and studied the herbology of the Iroquois with whom he worked. Lafitau recognized Jartoux’s papers as a golden opportunity. With the help of a Mohawk woman who easily recognized the drawings of ginseng sent by Jartoux with his letter, Lafitau confirmed the presence in North America of the plant (known as garantoquen) and also that the Iroquois used it as medicine.
Lafitau’s 1718 report on ginseng catalyzed a massively profitable but complicated trade between France and China. Once purchased from Native Canadian and other local gatherers in Montreal, the ginseng went by ship to La Rochelle in France and then to Canton via the French East India Company. Westerners could not trade directly with Chinese consumers, so the ginseng was then sold by Chinese merchants, often on the black market. The entire process took more than eight months, but the effort was worth it for most participants: in 1718, a pound of ginseng bought in Canton was worth sixty times the price in Montreal.
Through the distant cooperation of two Jesuit missionaries, North American ginseng became a major export to China, with far reaching consequences for centuries. Ginseng hunters from Eastern Canada to the forested mountains of Appalachia, the Ozarks, and the Upper Midwest began their searches for the valuable plant. Merchants crossed continents and oceans, establishing a connection of far-flung cultures and trade that exists to this day. None of this might have come about without Jartoux and Lafitau’s efforts.
Randi Pokladnik was born in southeastern Ohio on the border of West Virginia to a family knowledgeable about ginseng and other edible plants found in the Appalachian woods. Her mother and grandmother taught her to love foraging for these plants at an early age. “We would come home with garlic bags around our necks and we would make things like salads.” They moved away when she was still young, but she never grew out of her connections to the woods.
Many years later, Pokladnik stumbled into learning about ginseng when she met Syl Yunker, an expert with vast knowledge and passion for the plant. When Pokladnik asked him to tell her more about ginseng, he drove her all the way to his off-the-grid cabin in Kentucky to show her his pride and joy, “these great big six- and five-prong ginseng plants that he had.”
Through ginseng, Pokladnik reacquainted herself with her roots and the threats to a way of life. She had already joined in the fight against mountaintop removal, a method of coal mining that devastated West Virginia’s landscape and its habitats. “The coal seams are located in the southern part of the state and that just happens to be the prime ginseng habitat,” she observes. “Recent fracking infrastructure along with well pads and pipelines are also threatening ginseng habitat as they fragment the forests and introduce non-native invasive species.” In addition to the threat of the fossil fuel industry, she found ginseng’s future threatened by deer predation and poaching. The latter posed questions Pokladnik wanted to answer: why does poaching occur and what measures may be taken to prevent it?
This became the topic of Pokladnik’s PhD dissertation at Antioch University, starting in 2004 and successfully defended in 2008 as “Roots and Remedies of Ginseng Poaching in Central Appalachia.” Because Pokladnik wanted to see poaching through the eyes of the people it concerned most, she interviewed twenty-six stakeholders across Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Analyzing her data, she was able to identify four primary reasons why people may poach ginseng.
Pokladnik’s interviewees told her that poaching was motivated by greed, inadequate legal consequences, socioeconomic distress, or a mix of historical practices and loss of land access. On how to dissuade poachers, Pokladnik learned that one of the best remedies is education about the cultural, economic, historic, and ecological importance of American ginseng for everyone, from the general public to law enforcers. Other preventative measures include marking the roots with dyes, erecting fences, and removing berry tops after replanting seeds to hide the ginseng from prying eyes.
In addition to active threats, Pokladnik sees another worrying trend: fewer and fewer people remain in Appalachia who feel a connection to the land. One solution is to educate people about ginseng and get people to reconnect with their surroundings. “We’ve got to get people to start caring,” she declares.
Pokladnik grows ginseng in her own backyard to create an environment where the plants feel safe and where she thinks of the roots “like her children.” Her flesh-and-blood son also loves herbs, something Pokladnik shaped through his upbringing much like her mother before her. Efforts like Pokladnik’s at home and in the public may foster more caring people and quell the threat of poachers devastating one of Appalachia’s most beloved resources.
When he was growing up in West Virginia, Randy Halstead recalls digging ginseng, “There were five of us boys and my dad would take us to the woods just like we were working. We’d take a lunch and we’d stay all day.” The money that the large family got from digging ginseng, goldenseal, and other forest botanicals brought in extra money to buy necessities. Sometimes it was the only income they had after his father lost his coal mining job.
Until the mid-1970s, there were no restrictions in Appalachia of where one could dig ginseng nor regulations on either digging or selling. As a result, Halstead recalls many unscrupulous dealers who would cheat diggers out of a decent price for their hard work. This is one reason he became a ginseng dealer. “The idea [is] you treat people fair, and it’s worked for us. You know, we buy a lot of ginseng. We buy when a lot of people can’t buy it and even when they’re offering more money. They still come here because they know that whatever they got, they’re going to get paid for.”
Halstead started buying ginseng and other roots after running a feed business. He and his son, and now even grandson, also buy recycled materials and scrap metal at their Charleston company, Capitol Recycling. About buying ginseng, he comments, “I learned everything the hard way. I made a lot of mistakes. When you make those kind of mistakes, you don’t forget them. You get the eye for the right stuff.” The process that Halstead and many other dealers advocate is buying ginseng roots in bulk, with all sizes and shapes of roots in the lot. Picking out the largest roots or those with a particular shape, Halstead explains, is like “taking the gold out of the ring.”
Asked if he uses ginseng himself, Halstead says he has chewed the root for energy. He tells a joke about the time he started taking the root regularly. “After about two weeks, my wife told me, she said, ‘Don’t you take any more of that stuff!’ Because I couldn’t rest and I’d be up doing stuff all night, thumping or banging around in the house.” When asked if he believes, as many do, that the root is an aphrodisiac, Halstead laughs and says he thinks it just offers hard-working people “a little extra energy in the evening time for extra things … [so they] didn’t come in and just fall on the floor.”
In addition to buying ginseng as part of his business, Halstead still enjoys digging the roots in the fall. “I think the woods is the best place in the world to wind down. Get the stress off—no phone ringing, nobody hollering at you.” When he goes “senging,” he still carries a bag that his mother made for his father from the leg of an old pair of pants. “I go out every fall one or two times and dig some just because I’ve done it all my life. I did it with my father. We have so many memories.” Even though some of those memories include encounters with poisonous snakes and getting lost in the woods, Halstead concludes, “It was always good. I wouldn’t change anything because it made us appreciate things, because we had to work for it.”
Following her emancipation, Rhody Holsell lived in Fredericktown, Missouri, where researchers from the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviewed her in 1937. Her story, incorporated in the Library of Congress’s digital collection “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 to 1938,” includes this brief reference to ginseng (with the original transcript language retained here):
“When dey turned me loose I was naked, barefoot, and didn’t have nothin’ to start out on. They turned us loose without a thing and we had to pick ourselves up. We would go out of a Sunday and dig ginseng and let it dry for a week and sell it to de store. We would make about a dollar every Sunday dat way, and den we’d get our goods at de store.” Ginseng, used almost like currency in rural communities, brought income for Holsell and presumably others in her community.
A second account comes from George Thompson, who was enslaved in Kentucky but resided in Franklin, Indiana, when he was interviewed in 1937:
“I have no education. I can neither read nor write. As a slave I was not allowed to have books. On Sundays I would go into the woods and gather ginseng which I would sell to the doctors for from 10¢ to 15¢ a pound and with this money I would buy a book that was called the Blue Back Speller. Our master would not allow us to have any books and when we were lucky enough to own a book we would have to keep it hid, for if our master would find us with a book he would whip us and take the book from us.”
We can only surmise from these two brief accounts that many enslaved people throughout the ginseng region knew the plant, how to find and dig it, and where to take it to market. Ginseng’s economic value defined its role as a reliable source of income when people needed it most. Some, like Thompson, would dig when they had time to themselves, and others would dig out of necessity once freed.
However, not all enslaved people enjoyed positive relationships with ginseng. For instance, enslaved Africans in Minnesota Territory dug American ginseng both before and after the prohibition of slavery there in 1787, according to Eric Dregni’s By the Waters of Minnetonka (2014). This forced labor became even more prevalent during Minnesota’s ginseng boom in the 1850s and 60s, despite the North’s reputation as an anti-slavery haven.
Sharla Fett’s Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations (2000) describes how enslaved African Americans used ginseng leaves in combination with other leafy greens such as cabbage to cure fevers. However, additional information on ginseng’s medicinal role in the lives of African Americans before and after the abolishment of slavery remains scarce.
Robert Eidus considers his life’s purpose defending Appalachia’s wild woodland medicinal plants—plants like trillium, goldenseal, and especially American ginseng. At Eagle Feather Organic Farm, a medicinal plant nursery nestled in a mountain hollow north of Marshall, North Carolina, Eidus propagates a wide variety of medicinal herbs that he offers for sale and prepares into medicinal tinctures and capsules.
The heart and soul of Eidus’s work is American ginseng. Eidus got a later start in ginseng compared to many other growers and dealers. His first career was in real estate in Raleigh, North Carolina, but he grew frustrated with the business and yearned for a job that would be more physical and enable him to cultivate a deeper connection with the natural world.
“Whether it was a dream or a vision or whatever, I thought that I had this conversation with Grandfather Ginseng about being a person who could advocate for the plants. And that was kind of it.” In the early 1990s, Eidus built a house on the property that is now Eagle Feather Farm and began to seek prominent herbalists and experts in plant lore to help him learn how to steward the plants. Eventually, he settled on the technique of “wild simulation,” wherein the plant grows organically in a forest plot that mimics ginseng’s natural habitat.
Eidus is also a registered ginseng dealer and occasionally buys wild plants to process into medicine. However, he will buy ginseng only from those who harvest ginseng responsibly. Eidus promotes responsibility among other ginseng farmers, and encourages them not to use chemicals, which he believes poison the plants. He seeks to cultivate the skills of others through site visits, phone consultations, and workshops, as well as information made available through his website and local radio program.
As president of the North Carolina Ginseng Association (NCGA), Eidus supports sustainable ginseng growing and harvesting even further. He has used the NCGA to build community among younger, newer ginseng growers in North Carolina. The NCGA also advocates for state-level policies in North Carolina that incentivize organic ginseng growing and preserve wild populations.
Robert Eidus wears many hats, from consultant to association president, but above all he is a champion of ginseng stewardship and intends to see the plant thrive for many generations to come.
Robin Black started her career at the West Virginia Division of Forestry as a temporary “Kelly Girl” more than thirty years ago. When she started, the previous ginseng coordinator had just retired, so Black took over the job and never left. She continues making the job more efficient.
What does a ginseng coordinator do? Black explains, “My job involves licensing the dealers, entering the data that they provide, verifying the data, providing certificates to my field people to certify the ginseng, and auditing the dealers to make sure they’ve reported what they say they bought and what they say they exported, and then the annual report to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I start working on all that in July and I finish up at the end of May, because that’s when the report is due to U.S. Fish and Wildlife.” Black also serves as the state timbering coordinator—all of which keeps her busy.
Black’s father began digging ginseng as a youngster growing up in Webster County, West Virginia. Black recalls him digging ginseng when she was young, and he still enjoys digging ramps—a wild onion that grows in the same forested areas as ginseng. She knows that ginseng helped many people through hard times and still does today. “The biggest years that we had harvests were [during] coal strikes. Those miners, when they were out of work, they would go dig ginseng and use that for their Christmas money. In fact, there are still people who do that.”
Black works almost entirely with ginseng dealers in the state. You don’t need a license to dig in West Virginia—only permission from landowners if you are not digging on your own property. However, in order to sell, the law requires you to bring ginseng to a registered dealer (who must weigh it on specially calibrated scales) and to record each sale on a form.
All this makes for a lot of complicated paperwork, which Black tracks with spreadsheets. By comparing spreadsheets and reports from year to year, she can see trends in the ginseng business in West Virginia. For example, she sees an increase in sales of “green” or fresh (as opposed to dried) ginseng, which she attributes to dealers and higher-level buyers wanting more control over the drying process.
In recent years, popular reality shows, such as Appalachian Outlaws, have prompted more than her usual amount of phone calls seeking advice on how to harvest and grow ginseng. She recounts one such call: “‘Yes, I’d like to grow ginseng; how big will it be by next year?’ I said, ‘you’re lucky to even have a rootlet by then.’ ‘Well, doesn’t it get as big as a carrot?’ And I’m like, ‘No, not in one year! You’re looking at twenty years to thirty years to get as big as a carrot.’ And [the phone] goes click.”
Although Black knows that wild American ginseng is endangered, she believes that West Virginia and its mountains will furnish many areas where ginseng may flourish untouched.
Ruby Daniels epitomizes African American history in a region where it has long been invisible. Her family presence in Stanaford, West Virginia, dates to when William Crite, her formerly enslaved great-grandfather, came there to work in the coal mines. Crite and his descendants combined the wages of the mines with the fruits of the family’s seventy acres of forest, field, and streams. After Daniels’s parents left the coalfields in the mid-twentieth century, she grew up in Columbia, Maryland.
Daniels spent summers in Stanaford, under the care of her grandmother Fannie Shepherd, known in the community as a healer. “I was privileged to have a grandmother who was born in 1917 and lived ’til she was one hundred years old. She saw the world change. She was very verbal, and she loved to talk about old stories. Talking to my grandma about herbs was amazing.”
After earning a master of science degree in herbal therapeutics from Maryland University of Integrative Health, Daniels returned to Stanaford and started a company named Creasy Jane’s, after her great-grandmother. From the beginning, that work included recovering a place for African American herbal knowledge in narratives of Central Appalachia. “The Afrilachian piece has been hidden for so long. When I was in herbal school, I was taught that African Americans knew nothing of the herbs here, and the only way we learned about them was from Native Americans and Caucasians.”
Determined to address the silence on African medicinal and herbal knowledge in Appalachian history, Daniels studied the Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project. There she discovered parallels with distinctively African antecedents, such as the recognition and treatment of spiritual dimensions of illness and healing, a process in which the ancestors play a crucial role. Virginia law prohibited enslaved Africans to practice herbal medicine: “But we still did it. We just hid it.”
The Appalachian Mountains harbor many roots and herbs known to Daniels’s grandmother’s generation as efficacious for treating particular ailments. “They knew where the ginseng was, they didn’t really talk about them using it, but … about them going and digging and selling it to people.” Among African American communities, Daniels explained, ginseng did not have, for example, the stature of “High John,” a root whose name commemorates John, an enslaved cunning trickster who prevailed spectacularly in struggles against the master.
“I am not rare, because there are other African Americans that do go in the woods and work with the plants,” Daniels reflects. “But there are also many that do not get down with the woods. Because if we look at the history, even in slavery, they would be walking, and they would be allowed to go out as slaves in the woods. But if the wrong person caught you, or if you didn’t have a pass, and they just wanted to lynch you and beat you or rape you, there’s no safety there. So I do think it goes with the history of slavery. And then after slavery, the Jim Crow era … the government wasn’t really stepping in to save us. It’s still an issue now.”
Through her Afrilachian Forest Farming initiative, Daniels engages a long-term restoration project that integrates African American culture and history with the Appalachian forest. Like her grandmother, Daniels is a gardener, specializing in medicinal herbs and heritage vegetables, such as whippoorwill cow peas and iron-and-clay black-eyed peas. And like her grandmother, Daniels follows the African practice of planting on mounds. Daniels heals both forests and people through her care for the earth and its human communities.
Sara Jackson, from Wilmington, North Carolina, first learned how important ginseng is to Chinese traditional medicine through her study of herbal medicine. At that time, she did not make the connections among Asian ginseng, its importance to traditional Chinese medicine, and American ginseng, which was almost in her backyard. While on a hike, her partner pointed out the distinctive plant.
“At one point, I just had this epiphany that this plant is so similar to the important Chinese medicinal herb. There is this ancient, historical, and highly prized herb in China that is the king of all herbs, and here is the western counterpart to that. No wonder it’s being exported as a big moneymaker and is culturally important for many reasons over here in America.”
After this “aha moment,” Jackson sought social media resources on ginseng digging and dealing and consulted individuals who had extensive experience with the plant. This helped her develop her own philosophy and relationship with American ginseng. Jackson realized that sustainable practices of harvesting and using ginseng were key to its conservation, and that she wished to promote an appreciation of ginseng beyond its economic value.
Jackson’s method of conservation includes ethical harvesting and good stewardship, which encourages the preservation of generations of ginseng. Jackson advocates planting seeds or protecting existing plants from various threats like overharvesting, wildlife, and poachers. Also a photographer and designer, Jackson has developed graphics that explain the anatomy of the plant, posted beautiful photographs of ginseng, and designed infographics about ethical harvesting and good stewardship on her website, Bat Cave Botanicals. She also launched a “100 Days of Ginseng” campaign on Instagram in 2020, during which she posted graphics, photos, and wisdom to help others discover American ginseng and join in the conservation effort.
Since “wandering into” the ginseng country around her home, Jackson has found her calling: to correct the “plant blindness” that keeps many plants—especially ginseng—from being prioritized or even noticed in the realm of conservation awareness. “It is almost like a crime of neglect. If that’s the case, education and conservation and stewardship could be the answer.”
Steve Turchak started digging ginseng as a young man around 1964. As he recalls, his father gave him a book that included information about ginseng, “from the USDA on herbs and wild botanicals—that’s how I first got involved. I carried that book religiously for many years,” until it became worn and tattered over time.
Turchak’s knowledge of ginseng has grown over time, shaped by his own experiences digging and studying the plant for nearly sixty years. “At times, I’ve been a harvester, a planter or grower, then basically just interested in the plant all around. Even its history, mythology, and legends.”
For many diggers, selling ginseng is a way to get extra spending money. Turchak is no exception. Throughout his life, the ginseng Turchak dug paid for his other interests. “For the longest time, it paid for my [vegetable] gardening.” In other instances, he bartered with ginseng. “A couple times, I traded ‘sang’ root for trapping supplies. One hobby paying for another hobby.” At the time, the price for dried root was around $60 per pound, which paid for a dozen traps. In recent years, Turchak has shifted away from being a digger to focusing on contributing to local ginseng populations through his planting efforts.
Turchak always keeps an eye out for suitable ginseng habitat in his area. He studies the forest components and searches for the companion plants commonly found near ginseng. “They were plants that had the same requirements, you know, like the cohoshes and maiden hair fern.” Learning how to identify ginseng habitat comes from careful observation while in the forest. Over time, “sangers” get an eye for the slopes, associated plant species, soil content, and shade requirements that are favorable for ginseng. “You learn a lot about a plant when you grow it from seed,” Turchak explains.
Choosing the right habitat and practicing patience while the plant matures for five to ten years may result in a harvestable root, but there are still events out of the ginseng steward’s control that may compromise a plant’s survival. The most serious threat to ginseng in Turchak’s area is loss of habitat. In many places, development is turning forestlands once home to old populations of ginseng into residential complexes and parking lots. Turchak sees strip mining as especially destructive. “So much changed around here. How many times did they strip the hill and messed up the hill above my house? There was quite a bit of ‘sang’ in there, I couldn't get it all out before they worked it.”
Turchak recalls a legend about robbers who murdered a Chinese herbalist known for treating people with a ginseng elixir. “While [the robbers] were carrying [the herbalist] up into the mountains to bury him, every place [the herbalist’s] blood dripped, a ginseng plant would grow.” Poetically, the Chinese herbalist represents ginseng itself, used as a panacea or cure-all. The robbers represent deforestation, stripping the land of the healer. And the herbalist’s blood is symbolic of what people like Turchak do—planting seeds for future ginseng growth.
Susan Leopold is a prime example of how distance can make the heart grow fonder. When she returned to her home in the Appalachian region with a PhD in ethnobotany, she found a landscape rich in biodiversity and medicinal plants that had been lurking right under her nose. To many outsiders, she observes, the Appalachian forests may seem jungle-like, and many natives to the region have lost touch with local botanicals.
As executive director of United Plant Savers, an organization dedicated to the continued survival of native medicinal herbs and their habitats, Leopold understands the threats faced by many forest botanicals. While dedicating herself to protecting the plants she loves, she became enchanted by American ginseng—a particularly charismatic species that inspires loyalty and unity between people and the forest.
Passion for a plant like ginseng that is so important to woodland ecosystems means it can be used “as a teacher of forest conservation,” Leopold explains. After all, vying for the protection of ginseng means vying for its habitat, the very same woods where countless other crucial herbs reside.
Ginseng has also gained a personal importance in Leopold’s life. Introduced to the plant through Andy Hankins, a former Virginia agricultural extension agent, she has been raising ginseng on her land for more than twenty years, but never harvests the roots. Leopold likes to plant it around the entrances to her property as a guardian. “For me, the ginseng is kind of like a spirit plant that protects … bringing balance back into the body, and I feel like it also brings balance back into the ecosystem.”
Leopold also believes that ginseng has a bright future, despite current concerns. “Anybody can be part of the solution, and it’s as simple as planting some seeds in the fall and engaging in a really hands-on capacity. I think also what’s really important is incorporating ginseng into your life. It is an incredible adaptogen, its whole medicinal property is about helping our bodies to adapt to environmental stresses; I can’t think of a more perfect herb of our time than American ginseng.”
To that end, Leopold established the Paris Apothecary in Paris, Virginia, as a way to connect people with the traditional knowledge of native plants and medicinal herbs. The apothecary is in a historic general store, where most people would have gotten their herbs anyway, so Leopold preserved as much of its original features as possible. She hopes customers feel as though they have stepped back in time when they walk through her doors, and that they will want to incorporate herbs into their lifestyles.
Tae Rim first encountered ginseng in his youth, when training to be a speedskater. Following a skating injury, prescribed medical treatments included ginseng to heal his body. Rim says that the root brought a “gradual change” to his body’s system: “You don’t feel as fatigued, you sleep better, you have more clarity when you do certain activities.” He later studied traditional Chinese medicine at the Texas College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (now known as the Texas Health and Science University) in Austin. He graduated in 2006 with a master of acupuncture and Oriental medicine degree. He also studied at the Virginia University of Integrative Medicine in Fairfax and graduated in 2019 with a doctorate in acupuncture and Oriental medicine.
His experience and studies led him to become medical director at Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (AOM) clinic in Annandale, Virginia, and president of the Korean Oriental Medicine and Acupuncture Association of Virginia and Maryland. Rim also teaches at the Virginia University of Integrative Medicine.
At his clinic, Rim helps patients with injuries and physical pain by utilizing natural treatments and remedies that have been used across Asia for hundreds of years. “It is not like Western medicine where you have the same medication that is used for the general public. Traditional herbs are based on an individual’s conditions, symptoms and signs,” says Rim. These individual formulas change depending on a person’s “constitution,” which is determined by factors such as genetics, nutrition, and “how your body has physically adapted to your setting.”
Ginseng is one of the herbs commonly used in his treatments, especially with patients who are fatigued, menopausal, or lack mental clarity. But, according to Rim, ginseng also has positive effects for almost everyone and may be used as a supplement for energy, vitamins, and minerals. He prescribes American ginseng mostly in the summer when it may provide energy and a cooling effect at the same time.
A patient may seem to have a negative response to ginseng depending on if the practitioner is treating external factors or the root of the problem; sometimes the exterior symptoms need to be addressed before the root cause. However, these herbs can “change the body” over time and have long-term positive effects.
Non-Asians constitute most of Rim’s clients, only twenty percent of whom are Asian American. Local Veterans hospitals often provide referrals. Rim explains, “Most of the time they have a disability or a pain-related condition. We do see PTSD patients... but mostly it is lower back pain, knee pain, or other injuries from their service.” Rim uses ginseng as part of the medications for physical pain, but it can also be included in PTSD treatments, typically in combination with acupuncture, which is used to “balance their energy and relax their bodies.”
Most U.S. insurance companies consider Eastern medicine an alternative treatment and do not cover its costs. However, Rim is trying to educate the American public on its misconceptions about Eastern medicine and ginseng. Rim believes that the American public is starting to see the benefits of Eastern medicine and its “customizable” treatments.
Having grown up in the hills of southern Virginia, Teresa Boardwine of the Green Comfort School of Herbal Medicine recalls her father and his love for the land. Raised with ginseng, he taught her to tend the plant diligently. He clipped the berries to hide them from poachers, planted the seeds, and dug only a few roots each year for his own use.
Boardwine recalls, “Dad would always have a root in his pocket,” which he nibbled often, with a twinkle in his eye. “He was like a little kid in the woods. That’s what I got from him—that love of that land. I can still feel that land and the beauty of walking it with him.”
Boardwine had never actually dug a ginseng root until she was in her thirties, years after she moved away from home. She received her degree in nutrition, then moved around the world with her military spouse while working as a teacher. In northern Italy, she acquired her first herb book and read it front-to-back, enraptured. The concept of using food as medicine blended seamlessly with her education in nutrition.
She moved back to the United States to study herbology in California. While visiting her father in Virginia, they went up on the mountain together once more: “We were looking for ginseng, and I found it. It was my first time. I screamed so loud. It was so much fun. It was such a gift. That was the first ginseng root I ever dug.”
She has kept that root ever since, carrying it through her many journeys. In 1994, Boardwine returned to the woods of Virginia, where she started Green Comfort, and has stayed ever since. She teaches different herbal studies classes and advanced programs that prepare herbalists for professional American Herbalist Guild memberships. She also offers consultation services to clients looking for an herbal health regimen, designing custom “menus” to address their particular health concerns and to optimize individual lifestyles.
Expressing her hopes for ginseng’s future, Boardwine seeks greater accessibility to the plant for those who need it most by expanding forest farming in rural Appalachia. In an ideal world, people could use the roots daily to maintain general health, as did her father. She encourages her students to grow ginseng and other native herbs as the best way for them to connect to the plants and practice sustainability. Ginseng itself then becomes a teacher. “It’s a beautiful experience to connect with a plant and then open yourself to hear it—what it has to say—and that’s something that is not mine to teach.”
Wisconsin is home to one of the largest Hmong populations in the United States. Having come from a rural background themselves, many Hmong were drawn to Wisconsin’s ginseng fields when they immigrated to the United States as refugees following the Vietnam War. Tina Lee immigrated from Laos to Thailand and later to the United States.
Lee attributes her success with cultivating ginseng to her own strong work ethic and the community she works alongside. When she decided to grow ginseng on her own farm in 1994, she agreed to work in other growers’ fields for free in return for using her employer’s ginseng farming equipment. “I didn’t have any equipment—nothing, zero. But they helped me. They said, ‘I will pull my seeder for you and I will pull my plow for you and work my ginseng shredder for you.’ We like helping each other.” Although she sold her own ginseng fields in 2013, she continues to work for other large ginseng farms in Marathon County, Wisconsin.
Lee believes that her work ethic has allowed her to maintain not only good work habits but also good health. A good friend taught her how to make a special “secret” ginseng soup. “He said that since I work so hard for him and am very special to him, he would teach me to make the soup for myself. If you eat it at least three times a week for the next five years, then you will look thirty-five when you are actually fifty,” Lee explains. “Everybody tells me that I look so young and that I look so healthy, so I think it works!”
Lee isn’t the only person in her family to work in the ginseng fields. Once, when her four children were little, they worked hard with her all day and returned home that evening. Lee told them to shower while she prepared dinner, but when the meal was ready, she found them all half asleep! “Wake up! Wake up! Why are you laying on the floor?” she asked. She chuckles as she recalls their response: “Because we’re so tired!”
Lee’s work ethic has served her children well throughout their lives. They worked hard at school and then worked even harder alongside her in the ginseng fields. She laments that she didn’t think to photograph or video their time together in the fields. “I work hard because of my mom and dad; they were hard workers. So, I want to keep that memory.” She hopes her own children and her thirteen grandchildren have learned from her own example of taking pride in perseverance and commitment. “I think by now, my kids are doing pretty good too, so I’m proud of myself.”
Lee observes that COVID-19 negatively affected ginseng cultivation and markets, although other factors have also caused ups and downs over the years. “Some years it’s pretty good, other times though it’s very bad.” Only one son works alongside her in their employer’s fields. The other three children have other careers. Despite her young looks and special soup, she feels herself slowing down and appreciates her son’s help. “He enjoys it, working with me. He says he’s happy.”
Approaching Coffman’s Metals, you first notice the mischievous-looking ginseng on a sign at the end of the driveway. Then there’s the twelve-foot-high metal ginseng sculpture outside the office. Impressive specimens of ginseng in large jars and ginseng artwork adorn the office interior. Furs and other wild medicinal herbs, as well as metals and other recyclable materials, make up a large part of the business, but you can tell that ginseng is an important part of Tony Coffman’s work and life.
Coffman learned the business from his grandfather, Guy, who had been dealing in herbs and furs since the 1930s. Growing up in rural West Virginia, Coffman and his family fished and hunted, and occasionally dug ginseng as well. “[Finding] ginseng is an acquired skill. You just don’t go out and start to dig ginseng. First you have to know the habitat it likes to grow in. Then you’ve got to train your eyes to pick it up amongst tens of thousands of plants on the forest floor; and that takes a little while. A lot of people give up.”
Along with his familiarity with locating and properly digging ginseng, Coffman has learned a lot over the years about various types of ginseng. Like many longtime ginseng dealers, he recognizes how different geographic conditions affect the look of the root and the way it grows. “It’s the size and the color and the character. It’s basically the soil you’re growing it in. You could take a berry out of Wisconsin and bring it back here and plant it in our soil, it’s going to look like West Virginia ginseng.”
Coffman has gained some notoriety for appearing in the History Channel series Appalachian Outlaws, which aired originally in the early 2010s. Many people in the ginseng community believe the series’ emphasis on the high prices paid for ginseng roots, and romanticization of illegal harvesters, led to an increase in ginseng poaching. Coffman explains, “I know that it got pounded for lots of different reasons. But one of the good things it did was introduce ginseng to some of the younger kids. I had schoolkids from Michigan and their parents—one was the principal, one was an eighth-grade teacher—they brought their kids down. They wanted to meet ‘the ginseng guy’ and learn about ginseng.”
Coffman has thought a great deal about ginseng education and conservation. He often gives pointers to those who wish to start hunting ginseng and he has a novel plan to fund ginseng conservation efforts. “Why don’t they start a program like they do with Ducks Unlimited?” he muses. To offer a different ginseng stamp each year to raise funds for ginseng conservation—just as they do with duck hunters—may better increase awareness of ginseng conservation than a reality television show.
Tony Hayes got his start in the ginseng business right out of high school in the early 1970s with Lowe Fur and Herb of North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. He drove a circuit to buy herbs in the mountain communities of the state’s western counties. “I’d pull up to a place and run the horn and hear everybody holler, ‘It’s the herb man, herb man!’” Hayes transferred to the Wilcox Drug Company of Boone, North Carolina, when it was expanding in 1982.
When Hayes began as an herb buyer for Lowe Fur and Herb, the international trade of ginseng was not so strictly regulated and traders for the big companies such as Lowe and Wilcox bought from smaller traders across state borders. “Back in those days, we’d go to places like a barber shop or a hardware store, we’d go to these small post offices and ask, ‘Who buys ginseng in the community?’”
However, in 2000, on the dawn of its hundredth anniversary, the well-known Wilcox company was breaking apart. That’s when Hayes—who by then had worked in the botanical herb trade for twenty-seven years—began to think that his decision not to attend college had been a mistake.
Fortunately, the American ginseng portion of the business remained intact, which allowed Hayes to pick up where the Wilcox Company left off. Using his vast amount of knowledge and the contacts he had made over the years, as well as his winning personality and business savvy, he rebuilt the business into a thriving family enterprise called Ridge Runner Trading Company.
As the years and the business progressed, Hayes began traveling much further than the hills and hollows of Appalachia to support his ginseng trade. He made many trips to New York City to meet with ginseng traders there, and also traveled to Hong Kong and mainland China to expand his knowledge of ginseng trading. Hayes learned that many Chinese people shared the same reverence for ginseng as those he knew in Appalachia. The plant’s mystique is universal: “Chinese people are just like American people in the fact that they want to be ‘ginseng people.’ They romanticize it as much as we do or more, and they get all caught up in the drama of how old it is or what shape it is.”
Even though his business profits depended to some extent on the high price of ginseng, Hayes felt that a steadier, lower price for the roots would deter poaching, a big threat in his line of work. “As long as it was cheap, you heard of very little poaching. And whenever the price spikes, then the media grabs it… and then suddenly people that would come to hike the Appalachian Trail end up becoming ginseng diggers. The extremely high price paid for ginseng hurts it more than it helps it.”
Hayes also felt the U.S. government could do more to help keep wild American ginseng from further endangerment. He suggested developing a ginseng-planting program similar to the white-pine-planting project of the U.S. Forest Service and applauded the work of North Carolina ginseng growers, whose ginseng patches take the pressure off wild populations.
Hayes passed away at age sixty-five in July 2020. The American Herbal Products Association observed, “it was the root of the man, his gentle nature and his generational and cultural connection to centuries of traditional production of wild plants that will be most remembered.”
Victoria Ferguson, an enrolled member of the Monacan Indian Nation who serves on the Monacan Historic Resource Committee, considers ginseng not only as one touchstone among many to Native medicinal practices, but also as illustrating the way radical differences between Native American and non-Native American worldviews continue to play out.
Headquartered at Bear Mountain in Amherst County, Virginia, the Monacan Nation (federally recognized in 2018) is one of the very few Indigenous groups to remain on and around their ancestral lands. Ferguson’s grandmother’s family continued to live in that region until the 1880s when they moved further up the James River onto the flood plain where their earlier ancestors had lived. In the 1920s, Ferguson’s grandparents lived in Eagle Rock, an unincorporated hamlet of Botetourt County, Virginia, settled by descendants of Native Americans and enslaved Africans. They later moved to a coal camp in Stanaford, West Virginia, one of numerous camps in the segregated towns of the coalfields to which Black and Indigenous families were assigned.
Ferguson’s father’s ability to survive in the woods offered the family a measure of independence from the company store. “He was really pretty good at using natural resources out of the forest to help provide additional foods and things like that for the family. I think that’s what made it possible for us to have a successful life in a coal camp as opposed to people who didn’t know how to live that way.”
The youngest of seven siblings, Ferguson learned from her father not only how to grow and procure food from garden and woods, but also to cherish her Native American identity. “My father, I remember, growing up, would say to me, ‘When you go out in the street, people are not going to call you an Indian, but I need you to know that you’re an Indian.’”
There were practical reasons to seek alternatives to ginseng when looking for medicine. Ferguson offered the example of treating colic: “You’ll see very often ginseng listed as something used for colic. But ginseng is hard to find. The other cure for colic is calamus, which grows in the wetlands, and you could just go to the wetlands and find your cure for colic.”
Framed within systems of medicine, right relations to plants and animals, and larger cycles of life, ginseng offered Ferguson a means of instilling in her children attitudes of respect for and reciprocity with the Earth. “I taught my kids: ‘You have to find three plants to take one. Because you always have to leave a Mommy and a Daddy behind.’ That was the way I explained to little people why you would never take them all.”
Finding access to places hospitable to such teaching poses significant challenges.
“Today, as Indigenous people, your ability to access land is directly linked to your loss of knowledge,” said Ferguson. “Because you don’t have the ability to continue to teach those things.” Knowledge of habitats for ginseng and its companion medicinal plants goes hand in hand with growing and tending plants (as was the role of traditional Monacan women), teaching the young, and monitoring resources.
“I used to work with Miss Birdie, one of our Tribal Elders, and she showed me ginseng … And she cautioned me. She said, ‘You know, we need to wait until the seeds come on and they’re ready to seed themselves’ before we would pull the roots of these plants. And we kept watching it and we went back, and eventually we left the plant, but we would take the seeds so that we could propagate this plant elsewhere.”
For conserving ginseng and other medicinal plants, Ferguson suggests boosting public knowledge of and appreciation for the medicinal values of a wide variety of Appalachian forest understory species. “If we could encourage people to learn that there’s more medicines out there than ginseng that they could use, and maybe start using those medicines, we would relax the amount of pressure we’re putting on the forest.” Even so, alternatives to ginseng, like calamus, are becoming harder to find because wetlands have been so overdeveloped.
Conserving ginseng is connected to the cultivation of right relations with everything, as Ferguson observes: “The thing about it is, if we introduce people to these other alternatives, will the other alternatives become the new ginseng where things are pillaged and raped and plundered to almost nonexistence?”
Wendy Cass grew up in Massachusetts and went to school in Ohio and Vermont. She hadn’t had much experience with ginseng before moving to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to work as a botanist. “I am a rare find in the National Park Service in that I have worked for only one park. I came here right out of graduate school, and I have stayed here since 1997—a little over twenty-three years.”
Cass’s main duties include forest and rare-plant monitoring throughout Shenandoah National Park. Over the years, however, she has also learned the importance of working with law enforcement rangers on plant-poaching cases. One of the most sought-after plants in Shenandoah National Park is American ginseng, due to its high value as a medicinal herb in both the Asian and domestic markets.
The National Park Service (NPS) follows a preservation ethic that prohibits collecting plants in its national parks. However, it allows certain exceptions to this rule through permits for scientific purposes or by each park’s superintendent. At Shenandoah, this includes specific quantities of serviceberries, apples, blueberries, raspberries, and edible fleshy fungi such as mushrooms collected for personal consumption. Unfortunately, poachers take ginseng and many other plants and fungi from the park for culinary, ornamental, and medicinal use, as well as wood nettle, shelf fungi, fiddlehead ferns, and entire wildflowers.
A major part of protecting ginseng in the park is marking and replanting roots with a dye that lasts for at least thirteen years and that identifies them as coming from the park, should someone attempt a sale. NPS botanists mark all the ginseng they can find growing in the woods. Cass explains, “I’ve dug up roots that I’ve marked in the past and been able to see the marking on them.” However, replanting the roots is not so straightforward as one might think: “The first time I had one to replant, I was all set to go plunk them in the ground like a carrot, and one of my coworkers was like, ‘no, no.’” Although the stems grow vertically, the roots grow horizontally underground.
Cass acknowledges the complementary work of law enforcement rangers in deterring plant poaching. One of her other projects is creating kits to help law enforcement rangers with plant identification. Her hope is that her work will help catch ginseng poachers and that their prosecution will be publicized to deter future poaching.
“The maximum age for ginseng is said to be fifty, and we have had forty-seven-year-old roots that were pulled out of the park. And I’ll think, wow, if it’s 2020, that plant started growing in 1972. It just shows you the value of a national park and having an area that is undisturbed where [harvesting] is not allowed, so they can really run out their full life cycle.”
Danji restaurant in Centreville, Virginia, opened in 2018 as the sister restaurant to To Sok Jip, a longstanding Korean restaurant in Annandale, Virginia. The current owner also purchased the recipes of the grandmother who started To Sok Jip. Among these recipes is one of their most popular dishes, samgyetang, a Korean ginseng chicken soup. What makes this grandmother’s recipe so distinctive, according to manager Hyon S. Moon, is the “complex broth” made by boiling twenty to thirty large chickens. Their samgyetang is so popular that customers give it as gifts to elderly family members.
In more recent years, Danji has swapped out the ginseng for huangqi—Astragalus propinquus or Mongolian milkvetch—due to customer requests. According to Moon, “When people who have a high body temperature eat ginseng, it can cause their core temperature to rise. Because these customers could not eat the samgyetang, we took it out for them.”
However, ginseng is still present around the restaurant. Behind the counter are large cylindrical jars filled with insam-ju인삼주, a Korean ginseng liquor made by preserving ginseng in alcohol. Making this is a hobby of owner WenYi Bai, a third-generation Chinese Korean who grew up in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture of China. “In China they use a lot of ginseng. When I was in the countryside, I saw them adding ginseng into many different types of alcohol,” Bai recalls. This led him to experiment with his own recipe that uses a Chinese liquor called gaoliang (sorghum liquor) to make insam-ju.
Bai uses fresh American ginseng that he buys from his local H Mart and takes care in picking his roots. He emphasizes the importance of the ginseng to be “good looking.” Bai maintains that “the beauty and the body of the ginseng is important,” and that ginseng should “look like a person and have a lot of flowing stems.”
Bai does not sell his insam-ju to customers due to liquor laws, but he does consume it at home or offers it to guests who come to visit as a sign of wishing them good health. “Insam-ju has a nice flavor and a good smell. Over time, the alcohol percentage reduces and it becomes milder. People say that
Manager Moon also uses ginseng at home. She makes a tea from slices of fresh American ginseng and bellflower, which she believes is good for coughs during the winter months. Lately, she has been drinking it more often because of the ongoing pandemic. Moon also adds slices of fresh ginseng to her broths and other dishes when cooking. “People talk about gaining more energy or strength after eating foods with ginseng in them. I feel the same effects. I gradually get better and can feel the change in my body over time,” Moon observes.
Ginseng has always been part of Danji and it remains a vital ingredient in the staff members’ households as well.
Yesoon Lee first came to the United States as a graduate student in her early twenties to study music composition. After her husband passed away, she turned to her other talent—making delicious Korean cuisine —to support her two children. With the help of her son, co-owner and Chef Danny Lee, she opened Mandu, D.C.’s first traditional Korean restaurant in 2006. But opening a Korean restaurant in D.C. was no easy task; Lee’s family took a survey and found that fewer than ten percent of people in the area had tried Korean food before. Lee confessed, “I had a lot of debates with Danny in the beginning because I didn’t think American people would love Korean food, but then Danny responded, ‘Mom, I’m American, and I love it!’”
Mandu has now become a fixture in the D.C. food scene not only for locals, but also for visitors and foreign dignitaries from the nearby Korean embassy and consulate. Lee observes, “A lot of Korean tourists came to Mandu and we heard a lot of compliments like, ‘Wow, this Korean food is better than the food in Korea.’”
Lee researches the health benefits of her recipes before introducing a new dish to her customers. This dedication to nutrition is also part of her cooking at home, where she uses boyak 보약 (restorative herbal ingredients) such as jujubes, dangquai 단귀 (Angelica gigas), gamcho 감초 (Chinese licorice), and ginseng in her daily meals. Lee believes that ginseng brings a distinctive flavor to Korean cuisine and recommends making ginseng tea—but perhaps not if you have a fever. The warming properties of the roots may be better during the cold months when the body needs more warmth, resilience, and energy.
Old or leftover ginseng is never wasted in Lee’s household. She sometimes rolls the root flat and coats it in an egg batter to make a jeon 전 (a fritter or Korean pancake) or she deep fries it in oil to make a crispy banchan 반찬 (side dish). Lee prefers to use American ginseng for these dishes because it is not as overpowering in flavor as its Korean counterpart.
Lee’s legacy stands firm after twenty-five years in the restaurant business. She is beyond proud of introducing—with her son—Korean food to her local area. And she may even yet add ginseng dishes to Mandu’s menu.