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Larry Harding embodies age-old claims about his product and his passion. He moves through the woods with lithe self-assurance. His grin comes easy; his speech is energetic and intense.
"I've used ginseng almost every day since I was a kid," said the fit 53-year-old. "We just got finished hunting bears the whole season. The younger guys were amazed at how I get around this rugged country better than they do."
Harding's rugged bear haunts are the steep hollows above the Youghiogheny River in Maryland's western panhandle -- the same forested slopes where he learned to dig ginseng nearly a half-century ago. Those forays led to his being the second-generation proprietor of Harding's Ginseng Farm (www.hardingsginsengfarm.com), perched on a northwest-facing ridge crest above Friendsville, Md. Harding still digs and deals in wild ginseng, but his farm is the largest grower of "wild simulated" ginseng in the Appalachian region.
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium), especially the root, is prized for its vaunted medicinal and aphrodisiacal powers. Its Latin genus name "Panax" shares the same word-root as "panacea," a remedy for all ills -- a cure-all. Native Americans used it. Chinese, Koreans and other Asians coveted an Asian variety (Panax ginseng), whose wild stocks became depleted after about 5,000 years of harvest.
When 18th-century settlers penetrated American forests and found a plant similar to the one so esteemed in Asia, they developed an export market second in value only to fur. That market survives today, though beset with a scarce wild resource, overdue harvest regulation and inferior root grown fast under artificial conditions. This fall -- the annual "selling season" -- diggers can expect to pocket about $630 per pound of dried wild root.
Harding says that, today, wild ginseng roots are generally about 10 to 30 years old when dug from the mountains. Asian buyers know and pay more for old, wild roots, distinctive in their wizened, gnarly appearance and the "age tassel" that displays the plant's age through scars left behind by each season's stalk.
"The old-timers," Harding said, "found roots 50 and 60 years old."
Harding's late father, Ken Harding, started growing ginseng in the Maryland mountains more than 30 years ago in a way that mimicked the plant's habits in the wild. Instead of planting in cultivated ground under shade thrown by tarps or plastic, the Hardings learned to grow their plants under the natural shade of the woods.
"The main difference is the shade and how the soil is prepared or not prepared," Harding said. "The key is to let the ginseng compete with the rocks and tree roots for space and nutrients like in the wild. That gives the root shape and character."
Harding never harvests his crop before it is 6 to 10 years old. By then, Harding said, it is similar in appearance and properties to wild ginseng. "Cultivated" ginseng, grown under artificial shade and dosed with fertilizers for fast growth, produces a smooth, uniform root dug after three years. Maryland regulation requires Harding to identify his ginseng as "wild simulated," which commands less per pound than roots that are actually wild, but far more than "cultivated."
"If we can grow a high-quality root, we should get a high-quality price and hopefully take some of the pressure off wild ginseng," Harding said.
Hope, and state regulatory programs, may be the best things going for wild ginseng.
"[Wild ginseng is] declining in a big way. If someone knows where a plant is, they're going to dig it, and these mountains once had remote places that aren't remote anymore. There's ATV trails all back through there now," Harding said, his arm moving across an arc of hills.
Still, digging ginseng -- "sangin' " as it is widely known in Appalachia -- is not likely to attract hordes of new participants.
"I'm still getting the same folks bringing me ginseng that have been coming in for 45 years," said Dorothy Butz, owner of Westmoreland Fur Post near Twin Lakes Park outside Greensburg. "It's like hunting or fishing. They've been doing it their whole lives and now they're bringing their grandkids."
A licensed dealer, Butz buys wild root from 17 Western Pennsylvania counties, but does not blame diggers for ginseng's decline.
"It's never the digger that wipes it out," she declared. "It's clear-cutting woods and ripping the tops off of mountains. One of my best diggers always brought me 20 pounds a year, but he came in here this year and said a housing development wiped out his best spot."
Butz dismisses the influence of weather and supply on ginseng's price.
"What a digger gets is driven by the stock market," Butz said. "If the Chinese have money, the price goes up."
"Years ago, diggin' sang was a good side income for these mountain folks," Harding said. "Maybe they dug enough to pay their taxes. There's still people who pay for Christmas with ginseng. It's learned up through the families, passed through generations."