Ginseng, ferns and an ancient dialectWritten by George Ellison
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.”