American ginseng is a unique herb native to the eastern United States, known for its man-shaped roots and medicinal properties. West Virginia ginseng harvest season started the first of this month and will continue until Nov. 30.
Ginseng is characterized by its large teardrop-shaped leaves that fan out around the stem and a small cluster of red berries sprouting from the center. Beneath the soil, though, is the most important part of the plant — the root. It comically resembles the human body, typically with long “arms” and “legs” extending from the main part of the root.
American ginseng’s scientific name is Panax quinquefolius, the Greek “panax” meaning all-healing. In Indigenous American, Appalachian and Chinese medicine, ginseng has been used in soup, tea, medicine or chewing the root itself to relieve pain, treat infections, boost energy and treat illnesses such as colic and the common cold. At times, the roots have sold for hundreds of dollars per pound due to international demand.
As a result of its highly sought-after qualities, it has become increasingly more rare, reaching the point of endangerment in West Virginia. With this comes an increase in ginseng-related violations recorded by the West Virginia Division of Forestry, largely offenses of harvesting out of season — during which the ginseng has no seeds to continue the plant — and poaching of ginseng on private property.
State regulations on ginseng harvesting have been vital to maintaining the plant for future generations. Ginseng plants must be at least five years old and therefore have at least three prongs and have produced fruit this year in order to be harvested. After harvesting, seeds from the plant should be planted at the site. Ginseng is a slow-growing plant — its seeds require two years to germinate, and the plant itself takes five years to mature and reproduce.
“This is to continue the plant. If a plant is harvested before its seeds turn blood red then the seeds will not germinate and you lose a plant,” said West Virginia Division of Forestry ginseng coordinator Robin Black.
As one of the most heavily forested states in the country, with many cool, moist forests throughout the mountains and valleys, West Virginia is a prime location for ginseng. The plant’s long history in Appalachia dates back hundreds of years, with its popularity beginning to grow during the West Virginia mine wars of the 1900s.
“Some of the biggest ginseng harvests in the state were during the Mine Strikes,” said Black. “So the miner would dig ginseng, sell it and pay for Christmas or other bills.”
Decades later, ginseng harvesting remains a strong tradition throughout West Virginia. For some folks, it’s a way to make supplemental income, some use the plant for its medicinal qualities and others view it as a cultural tradition passed along by their ancestors. Ginseng “hunting grounds” are closely guarded secrets, and large roots that are especially human-like in shape are as valuable as a 12-point buck. For many, ginseng season is a time of friendly competition as people enjoy the thrill of the hunt.
For those new to the ginseng game, the West Virginia Division of Forestry offers an overview of harvesting methods and state ginseng regulations at wvforestry.com/ginseng-program/.