Editor’s note: The fascinating history of American ginseng and the many people involved in its current cultivation, harvest, trade, medicinal use, and conservation are the subject of a proposed program for the 2020 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Watch for more articles shedding light on this native plant in the coming months.
American ginseng, scientifically known as Panax quinquefolius, is an herbaceous plant commonly used in traditional medicine. The use and cultivation of ginseng spans across centuries and is still prominent in North America and Asia today.
It’s a plant that even I—as an anthropology student with a focus on ethnobotany—didn’t know much about when Smithsonian Folklife curator Betty Belanus recruited me for this research project. In an email, she explained, “This plant, which I have come to find endlessly fascinating in its history, folklore, and connections to conservation, international trade, and other topics too numerous to mention, could be a really interesting topic to build a Folklife Festival program around.” I thought to myself, “How endlessly fascinating can a plant really be?”
It is indeed, endless.
Ginseng is a wondrous species, as I have learned through the work of twenty-four virtual interns participating in our online American ginseng field school. So, here are the most surprising things I learned about American ginseng.
1. Growing ginseng is not for the casual hobby gardener
If you’ve ever considered growing ginseng, you should know it takes more than a green thumb and a smile. American ginseng is native to the deciduous forests of the United States, primarily in the Appalachian and Ozark regions, which means you’ll need a similar environment in order to cultivate the root. You’ll also need well-drained soil with a slightly acidic pH balance of around 5.0 to 6.5 to place the seeds in. If you’re lucky, those seeds will germinate in the next eighteen months!
Throughout the growing process, the plants need the right amount of shade, plus protection from deer and other wild animals that eat the seeds, leaves, flowers, and bright red berries. As if all the environmental requirements weren’t difficult enough, ginseng is prone to diseases such as leaf blight and root rot. In all, growing ginseng requires a minimum time commitment of three growing seasons, which takes about four years, to grow a root worth harvesting, making patience the key factor in growing ginseng.
2. Someone is selling ginseng on eBay for $10,859
Because of its popularity in China, there is a major market for American ginseng. While cultivated ginseng runs for about $50 a pound, the prices for wild, older roots are almost unimaginable. One pound of dried, wild ginseng sold for up to $800 in 2018. An ounce of ginseng powder had a value of $150 that same year. On eBay, one person has advertised their distinctly human-shaped root for a whopping $3,800. Another has listed less than three ounces for $10,859!
3. Dry sells high, but fresh is best
To ensure that roots wouldn’t rot on their way to China, ginseng diggers and sellers typically dried ginseng after harvesting. This practice is continued today, yet there is also a growing market for fresh ginseng. Dealers like Caleb Trivett from Tennessee would rather buy fresh ginseng roots, because it helps to ensure that they weren’t illegally harvested out of season. At the North Carolina Ginseng Association meeting in March, Trivett explained that fresh roots are easier to handle, whereas dry roots are more prone to breaking, which diminishes their value, and some people are better at drying roots properly than others. But, since almost ninety percent of American ginseng is directly shipped to China, dried roots will still have a market into the foreseeable future.
4. Sengers go senging for seng
Digging for wild ginseng is known colloquially as “senging.” As a way to make some extra cash in rural areas, it’s a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. Senging usually requires a “seng hoe,” a tool that allows them to dig up the plant without damaging the precious root. It can also double as a walking stick.
Since seng hoes are generally not sold in stores, people turn to recycled materials to create their own. Folklorist Mary Hufford reports that items such as old mine picks, fire pokers, and automobile springs have all been reused as seng hoes.
5. The girls can do it too, y’all
The stories and associations of American ginseng have predominantly consisted of white men, but female diggers have always existed, as girls were taught to seng alongside their brothers. In fact, female diggers are just as passionate about ginseng.
“If you can’t go ginsenging, it totally drives you crazy,” Carla Pettry confessed. Unfortunately, the stories of these women have not been as widely documented as those of their male counterparts. Researchers have begun to record the stories of female sengers, in hopes that it may shed light on a part of history and contemporary folklife that is largely unreported.
6. Presentation is everything
In many systems of traditional medicine, practitioners believe that a plant has the ability to cure whatever body part it resembles. Ginseng root, with its appendage-like fibers, tends to resemble a whole human body—making it a cure-all. Roots with all their “limbs” intact are highly valued. In fact, sometimes people frame them for their home as a sign of prestige and wealth, rather than consume them.
7. Hmong communities play a major role in ginseng cultivation
Beginning in the mid-1600s, the Hmong ethnic people were forced out of China by the Han Chinese majority. Many of these communities dispersed into Laos and Thailand. When the Vietnam War began, the Hmong aided the United States to fight against communists in Southeast Asia. Once U.S. troops withdrew from Laos, communist groups began targeting the Hmong. Thousands were pushed into refugee camps in Thailand, while others immigrated to the United States, where many found agricultural jobs.
Today, the Hmong make up a large percentage of American ginseng farm workers, primarily in Wisconsin. Some families even own their own farms. Unfortunately, the stories of these traditional farmers may soon become a thing of the past, as their children become college graduates and have little interest in continuing the tradition.
8. Ginseng foodways are a thing
With the large amounts of ginseng cultivated in Wisconsin, it is common to find local restaurants hosting “ginseng dinners.” Ginseng roots, fresh or dried, are used in making soups, beverages, and desserts. Most individuals describe the taste of ginseng as having an earthy, bitter taste that complements many other flavor profiles nicely. I’ve had the opportunity to try ginseng honey and chocolate truffles and can say I thoroughly enjoyed the taste!
9. Ginseng poaching is a real threat
Although shows such as the History Channel’s Appalachian Outlaws tend to glorify poachers, ginseng poaching is a serious offense and is not taken lightly by those interested in the conservation of the plant. Ginseng poachers illegally trespass onto private property and publically owned park land, often out of “ginseng season,” which takes place every year in most states from September 1 to December 31. Fortunately, park rangers and other law enforcement professionals are working hard to minimize the amount of poaching that occurs each year.
10. Conservation efforts are stronger than ever before
Monetary value aside, American ginseng plays a major role in its ecosystem, but the quantity of wild roots is diminishing rapidly. It’s a long-term result of poaching, overharvesting, increased deer populations, and loss of habitat due to mountaintop mining and other development. Indeed, the depletion of wild American ginseng has been evident since the start of the twentieth century, when people began to see a decline in plant number and sizes.
Now, American ginseng is listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. In an effort to preserve this valuable plant species, groups such as United Plant Savers in Ohio and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working diligently to protect wild ginseng populations for generations to come.
My endless fascination for the plant lives on, and I look forward to seeing what the future holds for American ginseng.
Andrea Mayorga is a former intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and an anthropology major at California State University, Northridge, with an interest in ethnobotany, foodways, and cultural sustainability.