Ginseng Memories

Ginseng with berries. Photo by US FWS via Wikimedia Commons

We first heard of ginseng in the New Yorker, where Burkhard Bilger wrote an article titled “Wild Sang” that explored the history of ginseng hunting and the very modern efforts to protect remaining plants from poaching in the Smoky Mountains. This week in Cool Green Science, the nature writer and conservationist Hal Herring reflects about his own personal experiences hunting ginseng in Alabama, and thinks about the future of the root:

I grew up in the flat-topped foothills of the Cumberland Mountains in north Alabama, and my mother was a student of wild herbs, wildflowers, and native medicinal plants. On my desk right now is a book called Tales of the Ginseng that my parents gave me for my twelfth birthday in 1976. It is a book of collected lore, of Manchurian folktales, of kings who become ginseng roots, of ginseng plants that withdraw, just ahead of the digger, to lure them into a deep-earth spirit-world from which they never return.

The book introduced me to the master ginseng seeker, hunter and trapper Dersu Uzala, and to the Russian explorer V.K. Arseniev who recorded Uzala’s stories while traveling with him in the remote reaches of the Siberian taiga.

There is the accounting of American frontiersman Daniel Boone ruining twelve tons of dried, ready-for-market “sang” (the frontiersman’s word for American ginseng, which was also used in north Alabama) in a mishap in the rapids of West Virginia’s Kanawha River in 1889.

The book cited claims of ginseng’s healing and strengthening powers that bordered upon the miraculous, powers that had been recognized for more than 5000 years. For me, a school-hating solitary, most at ease in the shadowed hardwood forests, there was no more mysterious quarry than ginseng, and no more romantic figure than a ginseng digger.

I wasted no time in becoming one.

A Deep Apprenticeship to Place

The search for ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) was every bit the adventure I’d imagined it would be. It was hot early-autumn days roaming the mountains I loved, looking for the places where the shade was deepest and ginseng grew best.

Digging ginseng meant a deep apprenticeship to place and to what grew and lived there, first learning the  ginseng’s closest associates: the towering yellow poplar trees that grew in the deepest soils, the spicebush (L. Benzoin), whose own orange berries smelled exactly like crushed tangerine, the Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum), the jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) that had lost its dramatic springtime flowers and produced a cluster of scarlet berries that, as one former digger told me, “could fool you for sang, if you are not looking close.”

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis L.) was a good indicator that ginseng might be near (but you had to find it early in the summer — because by September, bloodroot had mostly lost its leaves for the year), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), even better, but goldenseal, in my part of the mountains, was even more rare than ginseng. All of these native plants, I’d like to note, are strikingly beautiful, as is ginseng itself, as if these healthy ecosystems possess a kind of vigorous artistry that echoes somewhere in the human soul. The rich folklore of ginseng is no accident — the plant inspires awe in people, and it always has.

At this southern expanse of the ginseng’s native range, it was found in hyper-specific places — deep loam, shade, unaltered habitats, the last redoubts of the native species, from rare plants to timber rattlers.

It became second nature to know where the ginseng would almost never be found, or which plants lived in conditions inimical to it. Poison ivy meant hot and dry, a place disturbed sometime in the past, logged or grazed by cattle or goats, the ginseng long extirpated, if it was ever there at all. Eastern red cedar meant shallow limestone soils and no ginseng, as did straggling St. John’s Wort (Hypericum dolabriforme).

Because all marketable plants had once been harvested relentlessly in these mountains, the best places for hunting ginseng were the most remote, or the hidden places reached by forgotten trails and old mule-wagon roads long grown over. Wonders abounded, in the dappled yellow light of those woods, with only the soft strange croaking of the rain crow (our name for the yellow-billed cuckoo) to break the utter silence.

Read the rest of the article here.

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