Brian McMahan and Johnny Nicholson can both remember boyhood days spent in the mountains, hunting the elusive ginseng plant.
Coveted for its myriad medicinal uses, ginseng root harvest is an Appalachian tradition stretching back through generations. McMahan and Nicholson were both taught to dig it in such a way that its numbers would stay strong for generations more — leaving small plants to grow and planting the seed-containing berries of harvested plants in the earth around the dig.
Several weeks ago I wrote about ginseng. I have, in fact, been writing about ginseng for years. There seems to be a never-ending general interest in the plant. Its only rival would be ramps. Come spring, I will no doubt be writing about ramps.
Unsurprisingly, there was a good response to the latest “sang” column, which touched on the estimated payment for a dried pound ($500) this year; the concept known as the Doctrine of Signatures; Cherokee lore; and two “mystery plants” called “sang master” and “sang granny,” which some plant hunters use as “indicator species” to locate ginseng.
I hazarded a guess that “yellow mandarin” (Disporum lingunosa) might be “sang master.” I didn’t have an inkling as to what “sang granny” might be. But I’ve been doing some research (i.e., lying in bed reading) and now have an opinion.
My horizontal research consisted of reading Doug Elliott’s Swarm Tree: Of Honeybees, Honeymoons, and the Tree of Life (History Press, 2009). Elliott is a naturalist, herbalist, lecturer, writer, adventure trip leader, folklorist and prize-winning harmonica player who resides in Rutherford County. He is a world authority on “possumology,” with a long-standing interest in ginseng. In Swarm Tree, he relates the following sang-possum related tale.
“If you want to go ‘seng hunting, you come up this fall, and we’ll run yo’ little legs off!”
That sounded like both a challenge and an invitation to go on a ginseng hunt. The offer came from Ted and Leonard Hicks when I was visiting their family homestead high on Beech Mountain in Western North Carolina. I had come there, like so many others, to listen to their dad tell stories. Their father, [the late] Ray Hicks, was a national treasure, known for his incredible repertoire of old-time Appalachian stories … So one morning in early October, when I knew most of the ginseng berries would be ripe and the leaves would be turning that distinctive shade of yellow, I showed up at the Hicks homestead. There I met Leonard at the top of the driveway, where he informed me that both he and Ted had gotten jobs and they had to go to work that morning.
Since I was there already, I went down to the house to say hello to Ray and Rosa. I knocked on the door and heard Ray say, “Come in.”
I could tell that he sort of recognized me from previous visits, but it seemed like he was having trouble placing me. His wife, Rosa, hollering in from the kitchen, reminded him I was the “possum man” and that I had been there a few times over the years.
I don’t know how it is where you live, but among these folks mentioning ‘possums is a great icebreaker. And indeed Ray warmed quickly to the subject. He started talking … and he pretty much kept on talking till later that afternoon when I stood up and said I had to leave ... As for his account of the mating habits and sexual practices, there has been little scientific documentation confirming what he described, but what a tale! I just listened and took it all in.
We talked about ginseng and about how ginseng hunting gets in your blood. He was saying that when you’re walking through the woods, you can tell the places where ginseng is likely to grow — in the richer coves often near chestnut stumps, grapevines or black walnut trees.
“Thar’s a little fearn …” Ray was saying, speaking in his rich Appalachian dialect, full of archaic expressions and word twists. At first I didn’t understand what he was trying to tell me about. Then I realized he was talking about a fern, pronouncing the word like “fee’-ern.”
“Thar’s a little fearn I look for,” he went on to say. “If’n you find that fearn, you’ll find ‘seng (if somebody ain’t got there first and dug it). See, this here fearn, ‘hit’s all hooked up with ginseng. Thar’s a fungus hooked up thar ‘tween their roots.”
I realized he was talking about rattlesnake or grape fern (Botrychium sp.). This little fern grows in the same rich hollows as ginseng, and many mountain folks call it “‘seng sign” or “‘seng pointer” because it’s commonly known to grow in association with ginseng.
When I got home, I looked up the word “fern” in my dictionary, and it said that our word “fern” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “fearn.” So here was this backwoods mountaineer, a vestige of another era, living without a phone or indoor plumbing, speaking an ancient, archaic dialect. Yet he was discussing subterranean microscopic mycorrhizal associations between plants — something that is only just beginning to be understood by modern scientists …
I stopped one more time as I passed through the national forest, remembering that I had started the day with the intention to hunt ginseng. There were still a few hours of daylight left. I headed off into the woods. I worked my way up a creek, traveling across a rich, north-facing slope. I started to see grape ferns, those “fearns” that Ray had told me about, and before long, the distinctive yellowing leaves of ginseng caught my eye. There were about forty plants in this area. Because ginseng has a high price on its head and is being over-harvested in many areas, I was particularly judicious about my gathering from this patch.
So, I am now guessing that “sang granny” — the second “mystery plant” used locally as an indicator species for ginseng — is “rattlesnake grape fern.”
With the ginseng season just getting under way, federal and state law enforcement officers again are turning to cutting-edge technology in their efforts to root-out poachers.
Dye, coded chips and DNA markers are now widely used to deter and detect poachers in 13 states, including North Carolina, and at least two other countries. The use of markers was pioneered by Sylva resident Jim Corbin, a plant protection specialist for the state Department of Agriculture.
“We know it works as a deterrent,” he said. “In one study, it was 98-percent effective in keeping poachers out of the system.”
Twenty-five poachers were identified and then watched. Of that group, just one actively continued to dig ginseng illegally, Corbin said. He attributed that decrease to increased efforts to mark plants and prosecute offenders.
Ginseng has long been sought in Asia, where the root has for centuries enjoyed a reputation as a heal-all elixir and aphrodisiac. So much so, Asian ginseng has been wiped out of existence in China, increasing collecting pressures on its kissing cousin, American ginseng. The market for ginseng also has exploded recently in the U.S.
“Its popularity has moved from traditional uses to use as a modern herbal medicine,” said Nancy Gray of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “And poaching continues to be a huge issue for us in this park.”
It is illegal to collect ginseng from the Smokies. It can, however, legally be harvested from private lands — permission is required to harvest off private lands that are not one’s own — and permits to collect on most national forest lands are available.
Strict prohibition hasn’t stopped poachers from helping themselves to the declining ginseng population in the Smokies, though.
Since 1992, more than 11,000 roots illegally gathered have been seized by law enforcement and returned to the Smokies, Gray said.
“But we know that’s only a small percentage of what we think has actually been taken from this park,” she said, adding that the illegal activity is now taking place during the summer months, not just during the traditional mountain “sanging” time in the fall.
Red berries appear in the fall. These can help to more easily identify the nondescript, five-leaved plant. But many poachers are adept at spotting the herb even without the distinctive berry cluster, and start illegally collecting it almost as soon as the ginseng emerges from the ground. They are also harvesting the plant at younger and younger stages.
Some dealers, recognizing that the ginseng roots they are being sold sometimes have been harvested illegally, do return roots to the Smokies for replanting, Gray said.
The dye marker used in the Smokies is bright, University of Tennessee orange, and the roots bearing the dye are ruined for commercial use. The calcium-based dye is environmentally safe. Just enough dirt is scraped away to expose the ginseng root and the dye is applied.
Markers with information identifying where the plant was growing are also sometimes inserted into roots.
Ginseng grows very slowly.
“It takes about seven years for the plant to reproduce,” Gray said. “So even if we do replant, it takes a long time for it to recover.”
In addition to using the markers, rangers have been aggressively prosecuting captured poachers. There were three convictions in 2008 and two convictions in 2009.
Wild ginseng fetches a higher price than that cultivated commercially. Scott Persons, coauthor of Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and other Woodland Medicinals, helped develop most of the cultivation methods now widely used today.
Persons has been growing ginseng at Tuckasegee Valley Ginseng in Jackson County for three decades.
It can be cultivated in a way that simulates wild conditions, he said. This could help relieve some of the poaching pressures on the coveted herb.
“If you have a great place for ginseng, stick it in the ground and let it grow naturally, it will look natural,” Persons said.
Persons has cultivated ginseng for 30 years, but over time, word of his high-dollar crop spread and his ginseng plot became the target of poachers.
He installed hidden cameras, marked his roots, got new dogs and relied on the watchful eyes of neighbors to alert him to trespassers. But even then, poachers would come onto his property in broad daylight.
Those with large operations may resort to motion detector cameras with night-vision capabilities, live-streaming video, motion-triggered alarms and even a hired man to patrol the perimeter, Persons said.
“If you have a lot of ginseng growing, you can afford to have security measures to protect your crop, but it is a limiting factor,” said Persons.
Poaching got so aggravating that Persons says he has drastically scale back his ginseng cultivation. Because of the struggling economy, Corbin is worried that poachers will be hitting the woods this fall in force. That pressure might further intensify if prices, as early numbers indicate, go even higher.
A pound of wild ginseng is currently fetching about $110. There are approximately 50 roots to a pound, Corbin said.
The Swain and Jackson County Extension Service is taking orders for ginseng seed. The cost is $10 per ounce and $150 per pound. Payment must accompany orders. Interested buyers can bring their checks by the Swain or Jackson County Extension Service offices or mail to P.O. Box 2329, Bryson City, N.C., 28713. Orders must be placed by Sept. 16. 828.488.3848 or 828.586.4009 for information.