Ginseng is sometimes referred to as the black market herb of Appalachia.
It is the root of a perennial plant that has been used for more than 200 years as an herbal medicine around the world — particularly in parts of Asia. Historically, many have claimed it has benefits as an all-around tonic, energy booster and aphrodisiac.
And this prized root can be found right here in Appalachia.
To be clear, there are two main kinds of ginseng: Asian or Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). American ginseng is considered less powerful than the Asian variety, but both remain in high demand.
It’s likely Native Americans in the Appalachian area introduced colonists to ginseng. And while the herb’s use isn’t as popular in this part of the world, it was quickly discovered that exporting it could bring in a small fortune. Many have tried to cultivate the herb, but the larger roots bring in less money than the wild roots.
“Sang” can bring in hundreds of dollars per pound, which requires about 100-300 small roots. That has led to generations of “ginsenging” in the Appalachian Mountains.
The centuries-old tradition has been a way of life for many in Appalachia. From September through December, mountain families harvest the wild ginseng roots to sell to dealers who ship to Asia. Varying amounts of income are made, but there’s no denying its importance as a pastime.
Even frontiersman Daniel Boone was known to export ginseng, and George Washington reportedly wrote about the ginseng traders of the mountains in his diary. The impact of the herb in the area goes back hundreds of years.
Harvesters face a number of hurdles: the weather, deer, turkey and rodents. And, other harvesters. That, paired with wild ginseng’s endangered status, makes the mountain gold more difficult to find.
But the journey to spot the ripened berry clusters, the yellow leaves and the mature roots is rewarding — whether financially or emotionally. Ginseng hunting is a favorite activity for many families that has become a fond Appalachian tradition and makes use of the land available. And, that is a true Appalachian quality.