Secret search for wild (and pricey) ginseng begins in Pennsylvania

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

Dorothy Butz picked up the phone that rang Tuesday morning inside Westmoreland Fur Post. Her conversation with the person on the other side of the line was quick.

"Starting at $600 a pound, wild and dry," she told the caller.

Her shop, in the village of Crabtree in Salem, had not yet been open for three hours. But that morning, she said, 15 phone calls from people looking for the same information had already arrived.

It was a sign of the start of the season -- ginseng season.

American ginseng, a herbaceous perennial plant native to eastern North America, is valued for its roots, which many people, especially in eastern Asia, consider to have medicinal benefits.

Typically, the Pennsylvania ginseng harvesting season -- the time of the year when diggers can pull the roots out of the ground and take them to a dealer such as Mrs. Butz to be weighed and sold -- begins Aug. 1 and continues through Nov. 30.

This year, however, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources pushed the season's start back to Sept. 1.

This was partly to align Pennsylvania more closely with the seasons of surrounding states, such as Maryland, where the ginseng harvesting season begins Aug. 20, and New York, West Virginia and Ohio, where the harvesting season also starts Sept. 1. It was also changed to ensure the plant's survival by dissuading people from digging ginseng, considered a vulnerable plant, before the plants are mature. It takes a ginseng plant at least five years to reach maturity.

"We wanted to make sure the plants were being sustainably harvested," said Chris Firestone, wild plant program manager for the state DCNR Bureau of Forestry. Since the 1980s, the DCNR has required that diggers re-bury the plants' red berries near the harvesting site.

If the phone calls into Mrs. Butz's store were any indication, by September's start, ginseng diggers were eager to open the season. Ginseng harvesters are relatively few, but in Pennsylvania, they have a long history.

According to the DCNR, American ginseng, or Panax quinquefolius, was first discovered in Canada in the early 1700s. Late in that century, George Washington noted that when he passed over the Laurel Ridge in southwestern Pennsylvania, he "met a number of persons and pack horses going in with ginseng."

There are even records of ginseng being used as a form of currency in the Pittsburgh area, said Eric Burkhart, the plant science program director at Penn State University's Shaver's Creek Environmental Center who has been researching ginseng for more than a decade.

He can also testify to the medicinal benefits of ginseng, which he says boosts energy and immunity.

"There is an enhanced well-being, which is really what ginseng does for you," he said.

But most American ginseng is exported. Typically, Pennsylvania exports about 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of ginseng a year. Fayette County produced the largest cumulative amount of dry ginseng for export between 1991 and 2010, with 3,887 pounds total, Mr. Burkhart wrote in a paper about wild ginseng in Pennsylvania.

Compared to the other 19 states that export ginseng, Pennsylvania's contribution is middling, with the state generally ranking eighth to 14th.

Ginseng may be less abundant in Pennsylvania, but people who dig, grow or deal in ginseng are not lacking in passion. They do, however, tend to be secretive about where they dig their ginseng.

"That's a sacred trust," Mrs. Butz said. A man will take his son or grandson hunting for ginseng, but not his son-in-law, she said.

That level of secrecy has made collecting information about the ginseng industry in Pennsylvania difficult, even though dealers are required to submit records to the DCNR of who is selling ginseng and in what county they are finding it. This August, the state DCNR sent a survey to ginseng diggers, in part to gain a better sense of whether the ginseng being sold to dealers is wild or being grown.

The difference matters, since wild is more desired in the Asian market and so commands a much higher price than the cultivated ginseng. This season, Mrs. Butz said, the market value for wild ginseng was starting at $600 a pound but only about $25 a pound for cultivated ginseng. It takes about 200 dried roots to make a pound, Ms. Firestone said.

Although the phone kept ringing, there was no ginseng, wild or not, coming into the Westmoreland Fur Post Tuesday morning.

But it was only the first day. By the end of the ginseng season, Mrs. Butz said, she usually buys 100 to 150 pounds of the plant from diggers who travel from 17 counties in Western Pennsylvania.

Dorothy Butz, who is 65, and her husband Ray, who is 66, have been in the ginseng business for 35 years, after taking over the fur post from Ray's father.

Their little, one-story building is the site of fur trading in the winter but on Tuesday was occupied by the Butz couple and their three Sheltie dogs. It sits on the 100-acre farm that has been in the Butz family since 1926. A scale occupies a spot on the counter, ready to weigh ginseng.

Mr. Butz, cigar in hand, got in his truck to go find some. The Butzes are mostly dealers, but they still dig about half a pound of ginseng a year.

Mr. Butz drove up the road that shares his family's name, then into woods on his property. He pointed out the tell-tale features of the plant: a tall green stem, at least three prongs of leaves, red berries. There were a few ginseng plants in the shadowy parcel he was searching, and he used a small shovel to dig up one, exposing what he called a "half-decent" root, about the size of the stub of his cigar.

His wife had higher praise for it when he returned.

"That's a beauty," she said.

In China, especially, wild-grown American ginseng is considered beautiful. Mr. Burkhart, the Penn State researcher, visited this summer and saw ginseng not just for sale in pharmacies. The Chinese have such a "high reverence" for the roots that they are also framed and sold as artwork.

"They're not always just consuming it," said Mr. Burkhart, whose work in Pennsylvania is focusing on encouraging more ginseng sustainability and conservation. "They're appreciating the plant."

region - health - neigh_westmoreland

Katilynn Riely: This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: First Published September 5, 2013 8:30 PM


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?