Ginseng: The Appalachian Plant With Chinese Roots

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Photo: American ginseng, courtesy of USDA
Photo: American ginseng, courtesy of USDA

196 years after the birth of Jesus, a Chinese doctor published a text that would eventually become known as Shen-Nung Pharmacopoeia.  For centuries, the text would serve as an important guide to medicine in the Orient.

Described in this text was a strange plant whose roots were said to have “super tonic” powers, capable of curing the common cold, patients with chronic illnesses and those who were convalescing.

In the years that followed, traders traveling the Silk Road would carry this plant into Europe where it became known as ginseng; however, it was not until after European colonists arrived in the New World that the West’s connection to the plant was forever established.

As the colonists crested the Blue Ridge and assumed the title of mountaineers, they were again reintroduced to this plant by the Native Americans, who, like the Chinese, used the plant for a variety of medicinal purposes.

Somehow, in the 1700s, the American variety of ginseng plant found its way to the shores of China and Korea where the local people found the exotic taste and potency of American grown ginseng to far exceed their own.

Roughly around the same time as the American Revolution, an unlikely trading partnership was being birthed: The pioneers of Appalachia were searching the virgin forests of western Virginia, Carolina, and what would become Tennessee and Kentucky, in hopes of finding untapped ginseng groves.  The roots of which would eventually find their way into the hands of Asian consumers on the far side of the globe.

Through the 1800s, “sang’n” the term used by mountainfolk to describe searching for ginseng became an Appaalchian pastime and special tools called “sang hoes” were made to dig the plant from the ground without injuring the skin of the valuable root.

The demand for American grown ginseng was so high in Asia that by 1913, wild ginseng roots graded highest possible were selling for as high as $28.80 per pound, ($730.49 per pound in modern dollar value). To put this into perspective, in 1913, gold was selling for only $18.92 per ounce.

At these prices, it should come as no surprise that American ginseng was over harvested a handful of generations ago and is now considered an “at risk” plant by NatureServe.

Overharvesting, as well as forest destruction have left the plant a rare find in the mountains of Appalachia these days.

Today, Ontario, Canada, is the world’s largest producer of American ginseng and one county in Wisconsin, Marathon County, accounts for about 95% of production in the United States.

There are asserted efforts being made throughout Appalachia for property owners to replant American ginseng in their wooded areas in hopes of restoring the plant back to its natural habitats and removing pressure from any remaining wild ginseng.

Do you like Appalachian History? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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