Ginseng: A New Kind of Cash Crop

Ginseng is a staple of herbal medicine from China to Appalachia. It even grows in Hamilton County. But be careful who you tell. A detour into the world of illegal ginseng poaching.

The Saigon Market, tucked away in Findlay Market, is a puzzle box of a store. It looks diminutive and slightly concealed when you walk past. Small windows you don’t see very far into, a facade that feels a little older and slightly pulled back from the noisy newness all around, several neon signs proclaiming: Open. But when you enter, all that drops away and you are in a place that seems to stretch to three times the possible space.

You are on a mission. Walk past Nick, son of the owner Hgiep Ho—the TV will be on, he’ll probably be texting but may nod as you pass—and stop at the far wall. Running its entire length, up and down, is an international array of ginseng. Vitamin supplement bottles marked with the stars and stripes, declaring “PURE AMERICAN GINSENG.” Korean red ginseng in identical bottles on the same shelf. Boxes of “LOVE MENSHAN GINSENG EXTRACT,” vowing “MEN PLUS KING POWER” and “EROTIC TONIC FOR MEN.” There are varieties of ginseng tea, and a liquid ginkgo and ginseng blend in a box marked with a drawing of a cross section of a brain—the area, I guess, that this product, unlike some of the others, targets.

Illustration by Jessica Roux

“It’s good for energy, that’s what most folks use it for,” says Nick. “I’m told it’s got other medicinal purposes as well,” he adds with a chuckle. One day Nick spilled his coffee all over himself. Lacking his go-to stimulant, he pulled a bottle of ginseng energy supplement off this shelf and gave it a try. “It tasted like dirty sugar water but man did it work.”

Nick says that here in Saigon Market’s ginseng zone you can usually find a full metal bin of roots plucked right out of the ground, the whole thing going for $200. The root (actually, it’s a rhizome) looks like an undernourished yam, or spare parts from a doll factory, and sometimes like a hairy little man. It is ugly and mysterious, and people, chief among them Chinese, pay a lot of money for the best of it. Chinese consumers use ginseng, often mixed with other herbs, as a multi-purpose tonic. Once upon a time, they got all they could from the northern forests, reaching from the Korean peninsula across to Siberia. The habitat of Chinese ginseng, however, has largely been destroyed by deforestation and development. And while its powers as a folk remedy are vast and ancient among assorted Asian cultures, the fact is that today, the largest supply of wild ginseng comes from Appalachia. Yep, ginseng is as native as chess pie and as bitter as a hillbilly elegy plucked on a banjo.

Generally speaking, there is absolutely nothing noteworthy in the appearance of the ginseng plant. Just a small clutch of leaves and a stem, maybe a foot above the forest floor. It blends in. “The ginseng plant somewhat resembles a small buckeye sapling,” noted a local observer in a pharmaceutical journal in 1922.


Photograph courtesy Rural Action

Indeed it does, generally speaking, and like the buckeye, ginseng is deeply rooted in not just Appalachian history, but Ohio history. Ohio ranks sixth among the 19 states where the government allows wild ginseng to be harvested for export. Unlike that buckeye, however, it doesn’t get much respect, for it is everywhere and nowhere. Ginseng is so much a part of Ohio history that a few years ago, it was planted in the Heritage Garden, located on the grounds of the Ohio Governor’s Residence in Columbus. According to Guy Denny, the naturalist who planted the ginseng, woodchucks and rabbits have been nibbling on the stem, and the plant’s fate in the Heritage Garden is a little uncertain—it could be dead or it could just be lying low.

But that’s the thing about ginseng: It can go a year or more without popping up to say hello. It’s an underground sensation, as close as Findlay Market yet as little-known as any other rhizome you care to name. And now, after more than a century’s worth of observers predicted its demise, this previously unremarkable plant could act as a financial and environmental catalyst to help protect the Appalachian forest—if the poachers and illegal hunters can be kept at bay.

John Stock is walking the woods, pointing out things I barely notice. Stock is an outreach coordinator at United Plant Savers, a sanctuary for native medicinal plants in Rutland, Ohio, about 30 miles south of Athens. As we walk a trail he gestures toward an impressive schmear of goldenseal; this 379-acre sanctuary may be the biggest single habitat of the medicinal herb in Ohio. Blue cohosh blooms shyly to our left, a delicate little herb that is a leading indicator—along with goldenseal—that there is some ginseng around here.

A few miles down a country road heading into Athens, a sign announces both the local Tea Party meeting and the hellfire awaiting those who don’t go to church on Sunday. This is brimstone country, but it’s also country country. Besides United Plant Savers there is Equinox Botanicals, a retail store and mail order business that markets herbal remedies from the surrounding woodlands. And Rural Action, a nonprofit seeking to protect forests and empower those who live near them, is based in Athens. Both organizations tap into a no-nonsense communitarianism in parts of Appalachian Ohio that, like the blue cohosh, you might easily miss if you didn’t know where to look.

As we walk along the trail, Stock points up at a group of spicebush trees, gray and barren. There are a couple of theories for the origin of the disease: The bush might have been attacked by a disease that was accidentally introduced on the skin of a discarded avocado (the spicebush is genetically related to the avocado tree), or it could have been attacked by a disease-carrying beetle. There’s no sure answer. “There are threats everywhere to the forest,” Stock says.

Stock talks about old, familiar threats, like mountain-top clearing (which has replaced coal mines to a certain degree) and recent trends in timber removal, like large-scale buyers who snap up woods by the acre, then grind trees down to fine particles that are shipped to Europe to be burned in heating units. Groups like United Plant Savers and Rural Action are out here trying to keep the forested areas of Appalachia healthy. They are also showing people who live in this part of the state how they can manage their forested property rather than sell it off—and make some income in the process. “We’re encouraging people to not take tillers to the forest,” says Chip Carroll, land steward at United Plant Savers. This is where ginseng comes in. United Plant Savers makes quality ginseng seed available, and provides information on cultivating the notoriously finicky plant.

Not too far down the path I have my first encounter with a ginseng patch, one I would never have noticed had a trail sign not marked it. American ginseng (Panax quinqueflius) grows three ways: in the wild; via a method called “wild-simulated,” in which specimens are planted in much the same conditions as wild ginseng; and cultivated, often in large commercial settings in Wisconsin, the world leader in domesticated ginseng. Wild and wild-simulated ginseng are virtually indistinguishable, and get the same price from licensed dealers. Both are larger than farm-grown ginseng, which lacks the stress rings made by a wild plant as it pushes through soil year after year. The Chinese find the farm-grown variety far less powerful and thus far less valuable. It’s the kind of ginseng that most often ends up in energy drinks and shampoos.

Photograph courtesy Rural Action

“Ginseng is fairly adaptable, and will grow in differing sites,” says Tanner Filyaw, a non-timber forest product specialist with Rural Action. Not that you can plant it just anywhere. “If you have 30 acres of woods you might only have a couple good acres of ginseng habitat. But you can produce a lot of value in a small area. If you successfully planted and brought it to maturity on three acres of ground, that would certainly be a sizeable yield.” The wild-simulated approach theoretically reseeds itself in the long term, too. “After five or six years, the plants produce their own seeds, and you can get a perpetual cycle where you can make small harvests on a regular basis,” Filyaw says.

Even with natural plant mortality and the white tail deer population that feasts on ginseng stems, Filyaw sees substantial potential in a patch of ginseng: Up to eight pounds of dry roots can be cultivated from a pound of seeds. A rate of $500–$800 a pound could net a return of $4,000–$6,400 a year.

Requests for ginseng seeds come in regularly, though there was something of a run on the stuff several years back when the History Channel’s Appalachian Outlaws, a sub-Duck Dynasty show starring ginseng pirates, made it seem like they had just dug up buried treasure. These days there’s a little more realism, and follow-through, among those interested in growing. “The biggest [benefit] is getting people involved in their own forest land management [and] finding new value in keeping this as a resource,” says Filyaw. “You are not going to make huge sums of money in a given year, but those small amounts of income add up over time.”

Back in John Stock’s office at United Plant Savers, a converted stable painted mustard yellow, he pulls out a birthday present given to him by Carroll—a chunk of slippery elm, bundled with a few ginseng roots. With a pocketknife he slices off two hunks of the root and passes them around.

There’s no mistaking the powerful taste—muddy, bitter, very much of the earth. I didn’t sense any great rush of energy as I chewed my ginseng over the next hour, but my mouth did feel a tiny bit numb. Studies have shown that ginseng can reduce the chance of getting a cold, and it’s believed to boost endurance and strength, in addition to its effects on focus and (ahem) stamina.

And yet those who value it greatly inspire people all over Appalachia to crawl around the shady sides of hills and fend off snakes, poison ivy, and mosquitoes while they poke the ground with a sharp stick. Those folks in denim and T-shirts, if they live in Meigs County, where United Plant Savers is located, will eventually connect with the main ginseng dealers who come down from East Liverpool. These buyers put out word that they’ll be at, say, a gas station on Fridays at a certain time through ginseng season, which in Ohio runs from September 1 to December 31. It’s a chance for the ancient art of mountain bartering to once again come out of the holler.

In the fall, Asian buyers will also come through the state, doing deals with regional buyers with whom they’ve established relationships over the years, as well as with growers they’ve met in places like Columbus’s Chinatown. They use what’s left of a traditional East-West trade system that goes back centuries. How long these trade routes will continue is unclear, now that diggers can get their cache certified and put it right up on eBay, bypassing such vestigial buyer/seller networks. According to Carroll, Chinese investors are now eyeing forests like the one surrounding United Plant Savers, in hopes of turning a patchwork underground effort to wild-simulate ginseng into something multinational, sprawling, and lucrative. “The demand has never been greater and the price has never been higher,” he says.

This “divine root,” as writer David A. Taylor calls it, has been embedded in the American soil since the beginning of the nation. In his diaries, George Washington noted how in 1784 he encountered travelers packing ginseng to ship to China. Trapper Daniel Boone sold ginseng in the same backwoods towns that he off-loaded animal pelts. In the late 1780s, he amassed a pile of “seng,” as it was called in the countryside, and was packing it by barge when the vessel overturned at Point Pleasant, West Virginia, near the confluence of the Ohio and Kanawah rivers, destroying his monster haul.

In the 19th century, especially after the Civil War, ginseng travelled easily from the South to the Cincinnati waterfront, where it was shipped up river and China-bound. From his downtown home, the great botanist and pharmacist John Uri Lloyd wrote in 1901 that ginseng “has taken quite a hold on the thought of persons engaged in developing the resources of our country.” Lloyd understood he was living in the thick of the ginseng boom. “As is well known, the section of country about Cincinnati, the heavily wooded Ohio Valley” was “the chief source of ginseng supply.”

Lloyd wasn’t the first, and wouldn’t be the last, to predict the end of the seemingly endless supply of the stuff: “The great knobs are bare, the woods are gone, the ginseng has disappeared,” he declared.

As the root moved across the land, it gathered meanings tied to this place. In his book Ginseng: The Divine Root, Taylor notes how folklore about its uses emerged out of Native American herbalism and African root-doctoring practices. Harry Middleton Hyatt, an Anglican minister who traveled the South during the Depression, interviewing African-Americans for a masterwork of folklore called Hoodoo, Conjuration, Witchcraft, Rootwork, documented tales of spells and potions made from the root. Bluesman Willie Dixon wrote how he grew up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, with the smell of his mother’s hog hoof, sage, and ginseng teas in the house. It was a part of bluegrass culture as well as the blues. A group of white musicians from Putnam County, Kentucky, billed as the Kentucky Ramblers, recorded a jam they named “Ginseng Blues” in 1930:

Ain’t a-gonna dig no ginseng,
Well I ain’t a-gonna hunt no crow,
Ain’t gonna do a doggone thing
But love my dear sweet mama

Ginseng was one of a great many symbols city folks used to construct a caricature of Appalachians. These were people seen as layabouts, jug tippers, deplorables before that was a thing. An 1878 article reprinted in The Cincinnati Enquirer, headlined “Some Queer Human Beings,” described a “race” of Southerners who “earn a livelihood by digging and selling ginseng root,” subsisting on “snakes, owls, crows, and polecats.” Another story described a rural populace called the “Hillites”: “They raise enough corn to keep them alive, and dig enough ginseng to furnish them with cards and gunpowder.”

According to the writer Mary Hufford, prior to the establishment of a wage-economy in remote mountain areas, ginseng was an important source of income. It tied people to the soil and gave them a strong sense that the ground belonged to everyone, for it was part of “the commons,” to use a very old concept. Folks traded the root for shoes or food. Seng became a noun and a verb—and senging, to them, was like hunting or fishing, a way of extracting a gift from the commons, a way of getting lucky in life.

Even in less remote places and in times closer to our own, there was something about the root that inspired a do-it-yourself ethic. The Lloyd Library on Plum Street houses the archive and collection of John Uri, Nelson, and Curtis Lloyd, a family of pharmacist-scientists who made their name in Cincinnati roughly a century ago. Tucked away on one of the Lloyd Library’s storage shelves is a fragile collection of an artisanal magazine called The Ginseng Journal, published by a quirky man named Penn Kirk who wove carpets and lived in Arrowsmith, Illinois. In one issue he published a photograph of a haystack-sized mound of ginseng “dug from the Kirk gardens” and implored readers to “guess the number of pounds of dry ginseng in this pile and receive The Ginseng Journal free for one year.” The issues themselves are full of amateur guesswork and educated estimations of how to grow the plant at home.

Kirk comes across like a lonely guy-publisher who in a later era would have reached out to strangers who shared his interest in punk bands. There is something about ginseng that inspires amateurs and adventurers, from the Progressive Era down to our own. These sangers, sengers, and hillites poked sticks into the ground because the signs, the way they read them, indicated success was surely at hand. They’re still out there poking, too, on reality TV shows. Like the ginseng in the Heritage garden on the grounds of the Governor’s home in Columbus, these acolytes of the divine root are not dead, just asleep.

In 1975, a global agreement of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) added ginseng to a list of protected species. That agreement has put teeth into federal and state attempts to protect the plant and police illegal poaching. In Ohio, one needs a license to buy ginseng for resale or to export. You can only dig the root in its wild habitat in the late summer and fall if it is mature (sporting three or more leaves, or prongs).

On a hot day in July, one of those charged with protecting wild Ohio ginseng sits across a table from me in a Starbucks in Eastgate. Kevin Behr is an investigator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’s Division of Wildlife. He and two others cover the entire 17-county region that forms the Southwest District, from Auglaize in the north to Adams in the east and down to Hamilton. A clean-shaven square shooter, Behr wears a baseball cap with the American flag on it, a buck’s head embroidered over the red, white, and blue. He’s not wearing a badge or a uniform. When I point this out, Behr laughs and produces his cellphone, to show a picture taken a few weeks before of him and a coworker going undercover. He’s wearing sunglasses and looks primed for a #MAGA rally, with a scraggly beard reaching halfway down his chest.

“We’re kind of like the highway patrol of the woods and water,” he says. “If it walks, crawls, swims, flies, or grows, we deal with it.” Some coworkers don’t bother with the root, telling Behr, “if it can’t bite ya, I don’t fool with it.” But Behr is an ardent defender of ginseng. He has staked out places where poachers were believed to be, and arrested unlicensed dealers. He’s also taught law enforcement officials throughout the state how to identify poachers. “Believe me, I love to do ginseng,” he says. “I may have done some of the first ginseng cases in this district, in places where there wasn’t supposed to be ginseng. It’s a true passion.”

And speaking of places where you might not think ginseng grows, Behr points out that it’s scattered around Hamilton County, too. Without tipping off diggers, he gently suggests I take another look at some of the folks I see next time I bike the Little Miami Scenic Trail. Invariably, talk about the people he observes leads to a related subject: the invisible pull of the root. “Some of them are some of the nicest people you will ever meet,” he tells me. “But they dig ginseng. People get addicted to strange things—and believe it or not, there are people who get addicted to ginseng. They think, just around that next turn, or under some rock, they are going to find the mother lode. They really believe they are just about to hit the jackpot.”

There’s plenty to keep Behr busy. If the white-tail deer has been devastating to the plant, a more contemporary predator—the opioid addict, in constant need of cash—is also a concern. Behr says that just the previous week state officials made a bust nearby that netted 300 plants. “I’ve gotta feed my family,” the poacher said.

“The reality is—maybe so,” says Behr, in a way that suggests he’s not convinced. “But are they sometimes bad guys? Very bad guys. We see ginseng being traded for illegal drugs a lot.”

It’s not like the pot business, but there’s enough money in it to make everybody mad. In 2012, a 78-year-old man in New Paris heard trespassers digging on his property; he reached for his AK-47, shot the senger, and then hid the body in a mulch pile. Behr provided technical assistance in his prosecution.

Technical assistance, it turns out, is a big part of the job. Because for every rural judge who knows that the law says you must drop the berries of the plant you pull out of the ground back into the ground, there are others who don’t appreciate the importance of stopping ginseng thieves. Behr says he spends a lot of time talking about the plant, and networking with police departments, prosecutors, and judges to get the word out. He has been called to testify, in effect, in defense of the plant, and he sounds like a devoted advocate.

“It can’t scream, it can’t cry, it can’t complain.” He means the ginseng. “This job is tough. We have to motivate people to do the right thing. Which can mean motivate them to gain an appreciation for natural resources. If there’s an assault in Cincinnati, you’re going to have a victim and a suspect. The victim’s going to be put on a stand and testify. Not one of my victims can do that. I can’t put some ginseng on the stand and say, ‘Tell me what it’s like to have your buddies dug up.’”

Behr is torn between wanting to tell stories about his work, and not wanting to give out information that can help poachers. In this he is like those who grow ginseng, and those who dig for it: He knows he’s got good material and is worried about it falling into the wrong hands. But he finally relents and tells me about a particular bust he was involved in about 20 years ago when he was a young officer.

He was northwest of Cincinnati in an archaeologically rich part of the state. A vehicle he’d been following had repeatedly been parked near a spot where he knew illegal ginseng digging was going on. Then he got a tip that the vehicle would be parked there on a certain day. Sure enough, when he showed up, he found the vehicle with a sign on the dashboard saying “Broke down. Back in an hour.” He staked out the car for hours. When the owner emerged from the woods and got in, Behr drove his state vehicle right beside him and introduced himself. He could see the owner was holding a sizeable cache of illegal ginseng.

They got to talking. The poacher said he used to dig in Kentucky, but all his spots there had been worked over and now he was on the hunt in Ohio. He talked about his methods, and mentioned a sweet spot he’d found pushing his stick into the ground and touching root. The stick was a pool cue, and when it cracked, the man left it there in the ground, to mark the space he meant to get back to.

Behr was pretty familiar with the exact spot, because it was on his property. He’d been out and about one day, and found a pool cue sticking out of the ground.

“I never said one word to him about it—but that ginseng he found was ginseng I planted on my own property,” Behr told me. “Now, what does it take for a man to steal ginseng that has been planted by an investigator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources?”

Clearly the feelings for this mysterious plant run deep—on both sides of the law.

Facebook Comments