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  • A Tribute to Bob Beyfuss, 1950-2023


    “I AM HAUNTED BY GINSENG,” Robert L. Beyfuss (Bob) told the New York Times in a 1999 interview. The article reported on a research project in the Catskills spearheaded by Beyfuss, at the time a Cornell Cooperative Extension agent. The newspaper noted the many ways in which ginseng had become intertwined with the personal and professional lives of Beyfuss: to lose weight and sharpen his mind, endure the agony of a divorce, and steadily build a fascinating and lifelong career.

    Born and raised in Jersey City, Beyfuss spent boyhood summers in upstate New York, working on farms and nurturing a passion for fishing. He majored in botany at Rutgers University, discovering an interest in ethnobotany, and particularly the use of psychoactive plants for medicinal and religious purposes. In 1977, he accepted a part-time summer job with Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), later promoted to a full time CCE agent. Beyfuss communicated his research to the public through newsletters on gardening and horticulture, hosting an educational television program on which he regularly discussed growing American ginseng. In 1984 pursued a master’s degree at Cornell with a full scholarship.

    Beyfuss considered his master’s thesis on ginseng “no longer worth reading,” opining that many of the scientific references cited in his thesis were unsubstantiated and filled with inaccuracies. During his years at Cornell, Beyfuss headed research and agriculture projects enabling him to gain hands-on experience with and knowledge of ginseng. He established strong ties with academics, buyers, sellers, diggers, and other members of the ginseng community. In 2000, he put together a successful international “Y2K” ginseng conference, in Greene County, New York, attracting leading ginseng experts from around the world.

    Beyfuss eschewed publication of scholarly papers, but shared his knowledge through interviews, lectures and public media such as YouTube videos. Beyfuss is credited with recognizing the role of the calcium content of sugar maples in improving the growth of ginseng under forest conditions. After retiring from Cornell, Beyfuss explored the business of growing wild cultivated ginseng for wealthy Chinese investors. After successfully organizing the American Ginseng Pharm, Beyfuss turned operations over to his young protégé Anna Plattner. Beyfuss though retaining his role as advisory and sage in the ginseng world. He continued to rail against what he saw as senseless ginseng policies, and sought ways to defend ginseng against major threats such as deer and climate change.

    Sadly, on January 12, 2023, Beyfuss passed away unexpectedly. In his early 70s, Beyfuss had the energy and intellect of someone half his age. Those who knew him thought he would continue to be a fixture in the world of ginseng for many more years. Colleague and friend, Eric Burkhart, wrote this tribute posted to the American Herbal Products Association website, featuring statements gathered from a few of Bob’s ginseng-related acquaintances.

  • Wilcox Drug Historic Marker in Boone, NC

    As far as we know, this is the only official historic marker that commemorates ginseng! Read the whole story of the important role of Wilcox drugs here.

  • Ethan Swiggart Tells His Ginseng Story at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

    On week one (June 23-26) of the 2022 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Ethan Swiggart, a ginseng researcher from Middle Tennessee University, joined colleague Iris Gao and fellow ginseng experts Ed and Carol Daniels (Shady Grove Botanicals) and Eric Burkhart and Lisa Grab (Penn State University) to provide information about American ginseng conservation to thousands of visitors to the "Earth Optimism: Inspiring Conservation Communities" program. While at the Festival, Swiggart recorded a short audio piece for the organization Seed Broadcast, telling how he got involved in researching ginseng. The audio recording is located here, and below is the transcript of the story.

    Transcript from SeedBroadcast recording EO festival June 2022:

    My name is Ethan Swiggart, and I am at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival with Earth Optimism in Washington DC. I grew up in Tennessee, and I was raised by parents that really pushed me to be outside. We did a lot of camping trips, and kayaking trips and that developed a strong love of nature and the natural world for me. After high school, I decided to join Americorps, and I went there, and I got to travel all around, and when I came back, I took a job as an arborist, and I got to literally swing around in the trees and be a part of that community for a while, and I eventually got hurt and decided to switch gears out of tree climbing and studying plants in a more academic setting.

    So, the love of plants is what brought me to ginseng because ginseng does not behave like a normal plant. Most plants will germinate pretty quickly, and they’ll grow pretty quickly, and if you add inputs, you get more. With American ginseng specifically, it has doubled dormancy. So, the seed takes two years to germinate. That’s interesting in and of itself. Breaking that dormancy is an entire field of research to try to get that seed to germinate. After that, to get any sort of harvest off of the root, it’s around seven years to get that root to be of sustainable size. That’s also interesting to me, it’s not an annual crop. It also grows in the woods and, as I said earlier, being in that forest is really important to me, and ginseng doesn’t grow in ugly places, and so that really wonderful habitat of the Appalachian Mountains in that diverse ecosystem is where ginseng really needs to be.

    If you push it and try to cultivate it, in which you can do, but you don’t get nearly as much. And so, these are the things that have attracted me to ginseng and keep me coming back to try to learn more about it and get to know that plant. Ginseng is really interesting. It’s been around for thousands of years, and in the Appalachian region where it naturally grows, there’s people there that know a lot about it, and they have these skills on how to grow it, and this wisdom gets passed down and passed down, but there’s oftentimes not a lot of scientific research being put into that.

    One of the things that I’m interested in with the International Ginseng Institute, is to take these ideas and put scientific tests to them. One of the things that I’m looking at recently is companion planting. Ginseng does better when there’s golden seal around it, and lot of people are familiar with companion planting and we know that when they’re together they both do better, but so what I’m looking at is taking botanical extracts from goldenseal and looking at what active ingredients are actually in there, and I’m finding out that that extract reduces fungal pathogen pressure on ginseng. So, we’re producing these ways to protect ginseng from fungal pathogen pressure using the botanical extracts on plants that are growing right beside it in that same ecosystem.

  •  A Major Resource for the Ginseng Community

    Created in collaboration with United Plant Savers and the Wild American Ginseng Conservation Collaborative, is improved and updated from the original McGraw Labs website. For many years, the previous website was the main source of conservation science, research and data regarding wild American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) through the work of Dr. Jim McGraw and students. Now, this important foundational website has been greatly expanded to the whole ginseng community and adapted to a broader audience in order to provide lay folk with information about American ginseng biology, threats to this important species and the science-proven story of stewardship. Along with a new look, the updated media, videos and resources include a searchable database and an archive of Panax publications hosted on the website itself and interactive features that help to make the science easier for researchers and non-scientists alike.

  • Experiments in Growing Ginseng

    My ginseng story began in 2017 as I was looking to expand my medicinal herb garden. I still shake my head in disbelief when I remember that I looked at the heavy shade of the woods on my small residential property as a hindrance, not a benefit because I wanted more sun! My land, just over an acre was sloping, north facing, and blanketed with layer upon layer of invasive English Ivy. I noticed that from underneath the ivy I had the most beautiful Trillium and Jack-in-the Pulpit fighting through that menacing blanket every spring. After some research I discovered that American Ginseng liked to grow under Tulip Poplars and I had many companion plants that indicated I had good soil. I found Robert Eidus, President of the North Carolina Ginseng Association and called him on the phone. He was beyond helpful and has been my mentor since day one. I rolled up my sleeves, purchased a pair of snake boots, and began pulling the English Ivy by hand. I purchased my first ginseng rootlets and seeds from Robert along with some Goldenseal. I am happy to say that in my 5th year of growing my ginseng is doing amazingly well. I am practicing the wild simulated method and I plant my ginseng in patches among the other natives. I do nothing to amend the soil, nothing to protect the plants other than pull the invasive weeds that come with vengeance now that the ivy is gone. Conservation is my goal so I worry sometimes that I don't do more to take care of my plants.

    I've taken to heart the stories that wild ginseng absorbs the curative energies of the forest floor so I like to give them autonomy. However, I do talk to them and check on them everyday. When the plants begin to emerge in the spring everyday feels like Christmas morning as I rush out excitedly hoping to greet one of my ginseng peeking out of the soil after a long winter. In the fall I feel the same as I anxiously await those beautiful red berries. This year has been especially fun because seeds that I planted in the fall of 2017 have matured enough to produce their own berries. The joy that I have found growing this amazing plant and the people I have connected with in doing so has changed my life. My original plan all along was to harvest my roots as a supplemental source of income. I have several 10 year old plants started as rootlets but I am finding that I may be too attached to part with them!

  • Arlene Earns Her Ginseng Eyes

    In the Fall of 2021, I joined my partner-in-crime Betty Belanus on a field research trip to Ohio and West Virginia. For several years, we had been researching American ginseng and interviewing many who connect with this amazing plant to produce a website that highlights all the great work people have been doing around ginseng. Our trips have taken us to such places as cultivated fields and factories in Wisconsin, a distillery in Tennessee, metal recycling shops and wild-simulated patches in West Virginia, peaks and slopes of the Cumberland Mountains, and the woods of western Maryland. In all these locations our interviewees pointed out ginseng plants to us since they are hard to find and often mistaken for other look-alike plants.

    The Ohio leg of our most recent trip included a visit to the United Plant Savers in Rutland and a walk through their beautiful sanctuary which includes more than eight miles of hiking trails. We had a friendly competition going to see who could spot a ginseng plant, not knowing whether any were to be found besides the labeled plants that are part of the Sanctuary’s “Medicine Trail.” Walking with heads down to avoid tripping over exposed tree roots and uneven ground, I managed to see a red berry among the green and brown and yellowing foliage. My first ginseng plant that I found on my own! I felt like I had won . . . not our competition but my own ability to spot this elusive plant. With numerous conversations, site visits, and online research in my back pocket, this siting rose to the top of my wish list.

    Back to our hike, even with map and GPS in hand we managed to get lost, more than once, but managed with a bit of luck to find our way back. It was a lucky day all around.

  • My ginseng story started only a couple of years ago when I interned for Smithsonian Folklife's American Ginseng project. I created a storytelling series with my sister Rosalie that highlighted the stories of different folks who have a personal connection to the plant. After hearing so many inspiring stories and visiting several forest farms, I wanted to seek out my own experiences with ginseng. A year later, I started an apprenticeship with Ed and Carole Daniels of Shady Grove Botanicals, who I had interviewed during my storytelling series. With their help, I was able to start my own small forest farm on my family's farm in Brooke County, West Virginia. I've even been able to share my newfound love of ginseng and forest farming with kids from the local community through a program loosely modeled after Ed and Carole's "Plant-A-Seed" initiative. I'm so grateful to continue getting to know ginseng and its neighbors both through my work as a journalist and as a budding forest farmer.

  • Growing up hearing stories from my grandmother and her siblings about digging ginseng in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, I felt drawn to the subject as a graduate student looking for topics to research. When I started graduate school in 2010, I stumbled upon some newspaper articles from the 1870s describing a "curious race of sangers" who lived deep in the mountains, practiced peculiar habits, and dug ginseng for a living. Fantastical myths surrounded this mysterious group of Appalachians. My curiosity piqued, I spent the next 10 years hunting ginseng and other roots and herbs in the collections of university archives, county courthouses, and country stores around the Appalachian region, trying to figure out exactly who these ginseng diggers were.

    What I found was the outline of a fascinating story that had never fully been told. My book, Ginseng Diggers: A History of Root and Herb Gathering in Appalachia, tells their story. It investigates how and why the Appalachian region became the United States' most important supplier of wild medicinal plants, including ginseng, to the markets of the world. It also follows the diggers into the forest to see how root-and-herb gathering shaped local land-use, economy, social relations, and ecology. I explore the origins of ginseng cultivation at the end of the nineteenth century and the class tensions it generated within mountain communities. And I place it all within the context of Appalachian history from the eighteenth century into the twentieth. It has been an exciting journey that I would love to share with you readers of this valuable and intriguing website. I think you'll enjoy it.