Miners had a sixth sense for the ginseng root. This is the supernatural ability to see leaves from afar in the swirling puzzle of forest life. He was driving fast on a gravel road winding through a deep valley between those woods. Then he hit the brakes.
“Can you see that road singing?” he said excitedly, before jumping out of the car.
Sang, the long-standing nickname for the mysterious and lucrative ginseng root, is Pennsylvania’s most valuable crop, often selling for hundreds of dollars a pound. Some say it is overfished and exploited by newcomers. Many long-time miners believe this is an excuse to bring his harvest, one of Pennsylvania’s oldest, closer to licensing and taxation.
Most people don’t want to talk about ginseng at all.
A full-time miner and forager who accompanied The Inquirer for a day wanted to be identified only as “Justin G.” Experienced competitors may use the full name to obtain addresses and collect hunting grounds, he said. “Western Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh” was as specific as he wanted to know our location. I was hoping to leave my phone behind. Justin, 39, requested only anonymity and full camouflage.
“I don’t want anyone to see it,” he explained.
Unlike lamps, wild onion species, or forest chickens, edible fungi, ginseng requires a large amount of money, depending on the age and size of its roots. They sell it to middlemen, who then sell it to the larger markets of China and South Korea. There the root has been prized for thousands of years for its medicinal properties. There are dozens of Pennsylvania buyers who must obtain a license, but miners like Justin don’t need a permit to harvest or grow. He wants it to stay that way.
“Uncle Sam is having a really hard time sticking his nose into the ginseng business,” he said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Natural Resources has set guidelines for harvesting wild ginseng for the September 1-November 30 season. Three five-pronged leaves and red berries” must be checked and permission must be obtained before digging private land.
All of these rules are broken to some degree each season.
According to the DCNR, American ginseng has been protected since 1975 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as CITES. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulates its export. In 2019, the Wildlife Service undercovered and indicted 14 people for illegally harvesting and selling carrots in Pennsylvania. This operation was called “root cause”.
Eric Burkhart, a faculty member in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management at Pennsylvania State University, is arguably the state’s foremost expert on plants and their place in Pennsylvania’s rural culture. , Pennsylvania typically exports about 1,000 pounds of dried ginseng root annually, making it a top exporter, along with states such as Kentucky, West Virginia, North Carolina, and New York.
Burkhart’s research shows that every year there are reports that buyers are asked to submit, and he urges miners to disclose more information, especially about how much ginseng they are planting. often urged. His goal is to find out how much ginseng is left, but it won’t be easy: he’s been banned from his Facebook group for at least one wild ginseng.
“It’s a valuable thing, and it’s only going to get more valuable. At least in Pennsylvania, we’re caught up in this outlaw culture, kind of blue-collar,” he said. It will not be.”
According to Burkhart, social media, technology and reality TV are: Smokey Mountain Money When Outlaws of Appalachia It contributes to an influx of new miners flooding the forest, sometimes upending centuries-old traditions.
“Because of that, a lot of people are much quieter about the culture now,” he said.
Last year, an Indiana woman was charged with murder after shooting a Korean ginseng digger behind her home. A similar shooting occurred in Ohio in 2013.
Derek Pritz, retired waterway conservation officer for the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, sees all sides of it. he is a miner and a dealer, Ginseng: How to Find, Grow, and Use North American Forest Gold. Pretz grew up steeped in moonshine and “sang” in the hills of Fayette County in southwestern Pennsylvania. It’s the best ginseng county in the state, he said.
Pritz said ginseng has deep roots in the early days of the United States.
“George Washington used ginseng to offset the American Revolutionary War debt,” he said. “It was the only thing the Chinese traded gold for silver.”
Pritts believes new miners using apps to identify plants are rooting too young and too small. Ginseng is the long game, he said. Often it takes him 10 years for the roots to mature.
“People look at it and dig up everything they see,” he said. “A veteran knows to leave young plants alone. He’ll be back in five, 10 years.”
Finding old ginseng means navigating hilly terrain and off-the-beaten-path paths. and face venomous rattlesnakes and copperheads. Justin said he was once attacked by a female guarding a fawn.
Prydz carried a cane and a pistol on his most recent trip.
“Just in case you see a coyote,” he said.
In western Pennsylvania, Justin G. begins the day by climbing a steep embankment from an undisclosed gravel road. It took his eyes a few seconds to adjust to the darkness under the canopy, but he made his way through the skin-scratching thorns. The cuts and scrapes on Justin’s bare arm are proof of that. In a dry summer like this, the ginseng turned yellow faster and he easily spotted one plant from 40 feet away from him.
“Can you see me?” he said. “beautiful.”
Using a long crowbar tool, I carefully dug around the plant’s three stems, or “branches,” to find the roots. He put it all in his pocket and put a ginseng nut in the hole.
“You dig one and you plant one,” he said.
Justin, who works as a winter handyman, resents the media and reality TV portrayal of bargains as criminals and “coordinators.” Few are the last ones left, he says, and believes his biggest competitors are deer, not people.
“It’s not easy money,” he said. “This is not easy.”
Justin said he didn’t go to college, but I know he can. He named every plant he passed in the woods, and smelled the bark of one when he wasn’t sure. He said the ginseng benefits would help his daughter go where she couldn’t go, he declined to say exactly how much he earns per season. but it’s in the thousands.
“You have to have a good attitude about it. You have to trust that you’ll find something over the next hill,” he said. “I always think so. At night, when I close my eyes, I see ginseng.”
On the way home, as he was driving with his brakes on, he spotted a large plant ten feet off the road. When he got back to his car, he was almost shivering, estimating that one route alone was worth $50.
“You’re probably older than you and I combined,” he said.
Back at Justin’s ranch, a porch full of puppies greeted him. Their mother is named “Sang” and he hopes that at least the puppies will smell ginseng and make their lives easier.
Justin piled bags and bags of ginseng on the table, ready to sell about 12 pounds. This will cover your utility bills and food during the winter. But he kept coming back to his 100-year-old roots that he had just dug, lifted it into the air and called it “beauty.”
His girlfriend, Jolene, said she had never known anyone so passionate about ginseng.
“I wish he could see me like he sees those old roots,” she said.