Season starting for pricey ginseng root in Western Pennsylvania
Diggers can get $600 a pound for wild roots, valued in healing
September 8, 2013 8:00 AM
Ray Butz shows a ginseng berry in Westmoreland County while digging up the root.
The top of ginseng plant after the berries fall off.
Dorothy Butz examines a ginseng root at the Westmoreland Fur Post that her husband, Ray, rear, dug up.
Dorothy Butz points out how to measure the age of a ginseng root in her shop in Westmoreland County. This one was 30 years old when it was dug up.
By Kaitlynn Riely Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The start of ginseng season this month means diggers can now fan across Pennsylvania, searching for the highly valued root. But exactly where they find their "sang," as it's called, most diggers would rather not say.
"That's a sacred trust," said Dorothy Butz.
A man will take his son and his grandson hunting for ginseng, but not his son-in-law, said Mrs. Butz, 65, a licensed plant dealer whose Westmoreland Fur Post is located in the village of Crabtree in Salem.
In Fayette County, plant dealer Floyd Huggins sees the same.
"They might tell me the general area, but not exactly," said Mr. Huggins, 77, of Leisenring in Dunbar Township. "They're rather secretive."
They're definitely out there, however.
On Tuesday morning, Mrs. Butz picked up the phone that rang 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 had not yet been open for three hours. But that morning, she said, she'd already taken 15 phone calls from people looking for the same information.
American ginseng is a herbaceous perennial plant native to eastern North America. Many people, especially in eastern Asia, consider its roots to have medicinal benefits.
Typically, the Pennsylvania ginseng harvesting season -- when diggers can pull the roots out of the ground and take them to a dealer such as Mrs. Butz or Mr. Huggins to be weighed and sold -- begins Aug. 1 and continues through Nov. 30.
This year 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 it begins Aug. 20, and New York, West Virginia and Ohio, where it also starts Sept. 1. It was also changed to ensure the plant's survival by dissuading people from digging ginseng 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 this week were any indication, 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, 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 personally 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, Mr. Burkhart wrote in a paper about wild ginseng.
Compared with the other 19 states that export ginseng, Pennsylvania's contribution is middling, with the state generally ranking eighth to 14th.
Collecting information about the ginseng industry in Pennsylvania has been difficult, due in part to the level of secrecy practiced by diggers. Dealers are, however, 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 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.
But the state does have some prolific growers, such as one Jefferson County man named Randy who, figuring he could make more money growing than hunting ginseng, first planted ginseng seed on a wooded section of his property and a neighbor's property 27 years ago. He asked that his full name not be used, fearing that ginseng poachers could identify his territory.
He said the quality of his ginseng is virtually the same as naturally grown ginseng, and that for the past decade, he was able to live off his ginseng earnings -- about $10,000 to $15,000 a year.
Although the phone kept ringing Tuesday morning at the Westmoreland Fur Post, no ginseng was brought into the store.
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.
Mrs. Butz 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 Tuesday was occupied by the Butzes and their three Sheltie dogs. It sits on the 100-acre farm that has been in the Butz family since 1926. A scale on the counter is 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. In the woods on his property, Mr. Butz pointed out the telltale 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. "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. "They're appreciating the plant."