Tucked on Appalachian hillsides under the shade of forest canopies, little red berries have emerged from layers of forest green, which means one thing: Ginseng season has arrived.
Today, Sept. 1, marks the beginning of ginseng season in West Virginia, and although the plant’s red berries are what draws diggers’ attention, it’s the roots that they are after.
“It’s like buck season to a rooter,” said Dave Cook, a registered ginseng dealer. “When ginseng season hits there are so many people that take off a week of work.”
In 2013 one pound of wild ginseng — it usually takes between 200 and 300 dried roots to make a pound — sold for $780, said Robin Black, ginseng coordinator for the West Virginia Division of Forestry. She added that West Virginia’s multimillion dollar ginseng market is normally the second or third highest producer in the country.
“Those are the highest prices that I’ve probably seen in 20 years,” Black said.
Although the root, commonly sought after in many Asian cultures for its healing powers, can be found in all 55 counties of the Mountain State, the southern counties are normally the top producers. Black said McDowell, Mingo, Raleigh and Wyoming counties were the top producers last year.
Based on the summer climate and the success of last year’s season, Cook, who owns New River Trading in Summersville, said he has high hopes for this year.
“I think we’re going to have a really good dig. It’s going to be a really good harvest,” he said.
Although harvest numbers could be high, Black said she wouldn’t be surprised if the price is down.
“Whenever I see a very high season,” she said, “the next year normally the prices start a bit lower.”
A number of natural, factors — ranging from lack of rain to deer enjoying the plant for a snack — can have serious effects on harvests. So, anticipating a harvest’s success is always difficult, Black said.
Ginseng diggers, “sengers,” are allowed to dig in West Virginia between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30. They have until March 31 to sell the roots to a registered ginseng dealer, which must be done in state. People who do not sell their ginseng must obtain a weight receipt from the DOF by March 31 in order to legally possess it from April 1 through Aug. 31.
“Sengers” may only harvest ginseng plants that are at least 5 years old and have at least three prongs. When a plant is harvested all of its red berries, which indicate that the plant is ready to germinate, must be planted into the soil where it was found.
Cook explained that all of those regulations are in place to ensure that American ginseng remains prevalent across the Mountain State.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora [CITES] monitors the sale and exportation of all ginseng from the U.S. China is the number one importer of American ginseng.
Cook said the regulations “allow us to have what we have today without the over production. It was a necessity. We have to be good stewards and pay attention to what Mother Nature is teaching us.”
Cook and Black agreed that the biggest threat facing the continuation of healthy ginseng populations is out-of-season poaching.
“As a dealer, poaching is more detrimental than anything else,’ Cook said. “There is no way for ginseng to rebound once it’s been poached. Deer browsing will stress it, but that’s Mother Nature.”
This year, 19 people have been arrested for the digging, possession and/or sale of ginseng out of season, according to Kaven Ransom, an officer in District 5 of the state Division of Natural Resources. Ransom, whose district stretches from Kanawha County north to Mason and south to Mingo, said approximately 18 pounds of ginseng was obtained during arrests in the weeks leading up to Sept. 1.
“Some years are worse than others,” he said. “This year seems pretty bad. We’re honestly probably scratching the surface.”
He said most of the arrests were made in Logan, Mingo and Boone counties.
Captain Larry Case of DNR’s law enforcement for District 4 which comprises Southern West Virginia, didn’t yet have a final count of ginseng poaching arrsets. He anticipated the final count to be high and said final statistics will be released later this week.
Ransom added, “It’s a known thing in the southern part of the state [that you can] trade ginseng for prescription drugs.”
Cook explained that it’s easy for people dealing prescription drugs to obtain the poached ginseng and wait to sell it during the legal season to make a much higher profit.
“I hate to say it, the money is the pill trade,” Cook said. “A trader can get his value later on. That’s a way for him to slide.”
As a third generation “senger,” Cook said poaching ginseng not only hurts his business and other ginseng dealers in the state, but it also destroys the heritage and culture that has been built around the plant.
“Ginseng and humans are intertwined,” he said. “It’s ingrained in our culture and heritage.”
Reach Anna Patrick at email@example.com or 304-348-5100.