Building a Ginseng Business In Harmony With Nature


The healing power of the woods, which is perhaps their deepest level of beauty, might be said to reside in ginseng.

The roots of this shadowy perennial have been so valued as a source of pure wellness that at times they’ve been worth their weight in gold. Even today, properly dried wild ginseng roots can bring hundreds of dollars a pound, making it the most lucrative of non-timber forest products.

The diversity of the Appalachian forest has always provided a wide spectrum of non-timber products: edibles such as ramps and mushrooms; medicinals like ginseng and goldenseal; decorative floral products such as mosses and cones; landscaping shrubs like azaleas; and special woods used by artisans for carvings and musical instruments. Walk into any health food store, florist’s shop, or craft fair, and you’re likely to find items harvested wild from the woods.

Of all these non-timber products, ginseng receives the most attention, because it is so highly valued as a medicinal. And scientists have indeed found that ginseng may lower cholesterol, retard plaque in arteries, and stimulate the immune system. But usually you have to ingest it before you can tap ginseng’s power.

Sylvester Yunker first planted it, then spent a decade tending a garden of virtually wild ginseng on a woodlot bought for the purpose near Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. In that magic place, the mere presence of ginseng not only buffered Syl’s bitter past, but kept him so remarkably youthful that I took him to be 55. He was 72, and grinned to see the expression on my face when he told me so.

Syl has a full head of steel-colored hair, white mustache and goatee, pale blue eyes, and fair skin reddened by sun. He looks like a mountain patriarch, complete with snuff and a paper cup for spitting. He was technically not Appalachian, though, having been born and raised in Middletown, a village outside of Louisville.

“It was very rural at the time,” he said. “We had only three acres, but Mother was a farmer. She had 300 chickens. Behind our house, there was 700 acres of woods. I grew up loving the woods, all five of us kids knew the woods. I was constantly in them, I’d get browned off at civilization, at my family in particular, and take off for days at a time. The first time I was 6 years old. I ate field corn from a neighbor’s field, and made a lean-to. But I didn’t know ginseng then.”

Syl made the acquaintance of ginseng in Korea when he was 18 years old. He was in the Army for two years right after World War II ended in 1945. As always, he looked to the woods. Because of the ancient forest that circled the globe when the continents were still one, several closely related species of ginseng are native to both North America and Asia.

Medicinal use of the root in the mountains of Manchuria dates back 5,000 years. The people of Asia believe that ginseng prolongs life by bringing all bodily systems into equilibrium. This is the essence of wellness.

“I had a brother-in-law [in Korea] also, an Army captain who had been in China before the war,” Syl said. “He was with a tobacco company, which taught the Chinese to grow tobacco. The government of South Korea grew tobacco and ginseng as monopolies and sold them to China. That’s what financed the South Korean government.

“Later on, Mao Tse Tsung closed the ports of China, he wanted to be self-sufficient instead of dependent on trade, but instantly a Chinese Mafia sprang up to black market ginseng from Korea through Hong Kong.”

When Syl came back from Korea he went to law school, but in his last semester “had the honor of being the student who went the furthest at University of Kentucky before flunking out.” He went back into the Army in 1952 during the Korean War. He was a paratrooper, ranger, and pathfinder.

In 1960, he went to Vietnam to advise Vietnamese paratroopers. “I came home in 1961 more or less in a basket,” he said. “Today they call it post-traumatic stress
disorder. It was diagnosed as schizophrenia then. That made it hard to get a job.” His wife died 10 years later after a long illness.

Syl worked in insurance for a while through his father-in-law, but became interested in environmental work. He went to California to study oil spill clean-up procedures, and in 1970 started his own industrial clean-up company, “washing car shop floors, that kind of thing,” he said. He saved every penny he could to buy property.

“I’ve heard people in the ginseng business, both Chinese and American buyers, say that one-third of the world’s people will give one-fifth of their income to have ginseng once a day,” Syl said. “And that huge market has been historically stable, which is the first consideration of a long-term crop.”

Ginseng has been one of the most significant crops of the Appalachian forest since the early 1700s. Through a world-wide correspondence network of Jesuit missionaries, a priest in Canada learned about ginseng’s value in China, and looked for a similar plant in the forest around him. He became the enterprising father of a market that quickly spread south along the North American frontier. Millions of pounds of dried roots were exported to Asia by American pioneers, especially Daniel Boone, who gathered tons of it.

Some he surely dug from the Red River Gorge, when he traveled through it in the later 1700s. As was his wont, to mark his passage Boone carved his name, not on a tree but on a board he left in one of the gorge’s biggest rock houses. Legend has it that he was asked toward the end of his life if he had ever been lost during his decades of exploring uncharted wilderness. “No,” replied America’s quintessential pioneer, “but I was plumb bewildered for a few days once.”

I bet it was at Red River Gorge. A dendritic maze of red sandstone canyons, Red River Gorge would look like Utah if it wasn’t nearly swallowed by an exuberant forest. Beneath the canopy lies one of the greatest concentrations of natural arches in the world: more than 100 in 30 square miles.

Because the plateau into which the gorge is etched tops out at about 1,300 feet, there’s very little mountain chill. Hiking in summer can be a sweaty experience, as I found when I camped at the gorge in the Daniel Boone National Forest. The chill of a thunderstorm was a refreshing breath from heaven. Yet a tropical ambience felt right.

Big leaf magnolias, reminiscent of banana trees but much larger, grew profusely across every tangled terrace. The abundance of paw paws, whose fruit tastes like banana custard, amplified the effect. Rhododendron and laurel formed dense thickets of glossy green. Poison ivy vines grew so muscular I mistook them for the out-stretched arms of big oak trees. The mosquitoes just seemed big.

The Secret Patch

By the time I met Syl, I was smeared with bug repellent. I was dressed head to toe with poison ivy and snakes in mind, because the gorge’s snakes are as legendary as Boone. I figured I’d better be prepared for anything, because Syl was going to breach the cardinal rule of ginseng: secrecy. He was going to show me his ginseng patch.

Syl had searched for years before choosing this 40 acres of old homestead not very far from the gorge. He had studied the area where ginseng used to grow most abundantly in Asia, and found that east central Kentucky was almost identical to Xi’an province in China, 175 miles south and west of Beijing.

“The parallel line that divides Kentucky and Tennessee runs right through Xi’an,” he said, “and the weather is continental temperate in both.”

Syl’s land had a cave; his neighbor’s had an arch. The slopes were relatively gentle and lay with an east-northeastern exposure. The woods were young, having grown up since the farm was abandoned in 1943. This family, like so many others in the mountains, had moved to Detroit to work in steel factories during World War II.

The house was gone, its wood reused elsewhere, but parts of the root cellar remained, and day lilies bloomed where Syl parked his camper for the summer. He had remarried and lived a couple of hours away in Lexington. In the autumn he planned to start building a house equipped with solar power.

He had noticed how a ridge behind the old homesite made a protected microclimate, and planted a fruit orchard and black walnut trees that were beginning to produce. The forest was maples, poplar, some hickories and ash, bunches of cedars grouped here and there, and occasional pines. Under this canopy was a dense understory stirring in a warm, dry August wind.

“Ginseng keeps company with certain plants that can serve as indicators, like poison ivy,” Syl said, using his planting stick to part the way through a menacing stand. “No, just joking. But stinging nettle, greenbrier, goldenseal, black cohosh, jack in the pulpit, they’ll all grow with ginseng.”

As my eye adapted to the suffused light, I saw that I was surrounded by the biggest, healthiest, most abundant ginseng I’d ever seen. Many plants bore flower clusters and green berries like flat peas. They all nodded slightly in the breeze, as if to acknowledge our presence.

There was a small cliff behind us, and we faced into a pointillist canvas of greens. “This is what the Chinese don’t have,” Syl said. “The reason they pay so much for American ginseng is that they’ve deforested their country and can’t grow it wild anymore. Korea has a big business in cultivated ginseng, which is artificially shaded, fertilized and sprayed with fungicides. But the fleshy roots that you get when it’s grown like an agricultural crop are very different from the small, dark, rough and gnarly wild ones, with their concentric growth rings.”

Wild roots have been shown to contain stronger concentrations of the active ingredients in ginseng (called ginsenosides).

“Buyers can instantly discern the difference,” Syl continued. “That’s why growing it virtually wild like this has such a potential market.” Wildness! Maybe that’s what felt so subtly exciting here, this quiet thrill of being in the company of ginseng. There was a sense of wild forest life, as if cougars might find refuge in the cave on Syl’s land. Red-eyed vireos warbled their incessant conversations without interruption.

And yet this was unquestionably a value-added woodlot. Syl had managed to trace a fine line between wild and domesticated. He demonstrated the planting stick he’d made: a Bowie knife with a strong blade taped to the end of a mop handle so that 3 or 4 inches of blade protruded. Also taped along the mop handle was a plastic pipe with a half-inch diameter.

Syl plunged the blade into the earth, and if there was at least 2 inches of soil, he waggled the blade to make a V trench about three-quarters of an inch deep. Then he dropped the seed down the plastic pipe, and stomped dirt over it. “Keeps you from bending down each time,” he said.

And that was essentially all he did. Using seeds from his own plants, he seeded for five successive years in patches of one square yard. He spread the plants out enough to avoid mold, though, which is a big problem in ginseng plantations. So far, he had seeded 4 1/2 acres, and planned to do 10 acres total. The plants would seed themselves, too.

“That way,” Syl said, “roots of a multiplicity of ages, just like in the wild, will be available for digging every year, to thwart dealers who would say the roots are too uniform and therefore not wild.”

Growing virtually wild ginseng is a companionable rather than a competitive endeavor. Syl’s rule was never to weed or remove anything from the understory. His main forest management activity was to cut down the dead trees among his plants, because they often fell and brought down neighboring trees, opening too big a gap. Ginseng turns yellow and spotty in too much sun.

Syl used the snags and other dead falls to form terraces down some small ravines and slopes, to hold forest litter and moisture. He also cut wild grapevines at shoulder height to prevent them from pulling down the canopy trees, but he left them growing so they might still produce grapes for birds. Here and there I spotted short pieces of black pipe half buried in the ground; these housed mouse traps.

“Mice haven’t proved a big problem,” Syl said, “but voles are. Friends told me to leave Juicy Fruit chewing gum — chewed — in the vole holes, and you know, it seems to work.”

The ginseng plants below the limestone cliff were a deeper green and larger than the others. Ginseng likes calcium. “The plants reflect very small differences in conditions,” Syl said, pointing out how some were larger or smaller because of soil or sun or nearby plants.

Ginseng plants are sensitive, mysteriously so, disappearing for years for no apparent reason. Some plants have been known to go dormant for decades. Ginseng can grow for a century, its years countable as root scars, but the older it gets, the less robust its roots.

“I think ten years is optimal, so that’s how long I’ve waited to harvest,” Syl said. “This fall I’ll be digging my first roots. A ginseng grower has to be patient.”

Plants are propagated from berries, which aren’t produced until wild plants are at least 5 years old. Slow reproduction makes ginseng vulnerable to overharvest, just as dependence on natural forest makes it vulnerable to logging and fragmentation of habitat.

Three Major Threats

With these strikes against it, wild ginseng in North America has a good chance of going the way of wild ginseng in Asia, where it has become extremely rare. An analysis of the American ginseng market by TRAFFIC North America, a wildlife trade monitoring operation, found that ginseng suffered from three major threats: habitat loss from logging and development, particularly in the southern Appalachians; a trend toward overcollection; and harvesting before plants or berries were mature.

Eight of the plants below the cliff were marked by numbered stakes. Syl had been taking photos of each of these plants every month or so. He later posted these photos and photos of the harvested roots on the Internet, hoping to cut out some middlemen. He got a few bids, but not as high as he wanted, which was $800 a pound. He knew that in Hong Kong the price for wild American ginseng could go as high as $2,000 a pound.

Syl was challenging a trading network far older than the rules imposed on it. Commercial export of ginseng has been regulated only since 1975, when the plant was listed as a species of concern by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service monitors wild ginseng based on annual harvest reports from about two dozen states. Ginseng exports more than tripled through the 1990s, to a peak of nearly 150,000 pounds and $32 million dollars, but levels began to fall rapidly in the new millennium.

Eastern Kentucky supplies the largest single segment of the export market, averaging nearly 30,000 lbs. a year. West Virginia and Tennessee follow with around 20,000 pounds. Not coincidentally, these same areas of Appalachia contain some of the nation’s poorest people. ‘Seng hunting continues as a cultural tradition and an economic mainstay.

Some families still dig ginseng, often from coal company lands, to buy clothes and books to send their children to school in the fall. When coal mines shut down, ginseng harvests go up, making it difficult to link harvest levels with estimates of plant populations. Between the closing of exhausted seams and the thorough mechanization of the industry, most mining jobs have dried up. Ginseng poaching is known to be worst where unemployment is high.

States have legislated varying rules to protect the plant, such as prohibiting harvest before the berries are ripe and requiring that harvesters properly plant the berries. Some national forests have established moratoriums on wild ginseng collection.

Academic researchers are investigating the genetic viability of dwindling ginseng populations. It’s thought that at least 170 plants are necessary to prevent inbreeding, but even these populations become susceptible as habitat is fragmented. Stands of a couple hundred plants, if grown virtually wild from locally native seeds, could contribute significantly to ginseng conservation. Not only would they increase ginseng diversity, but they could also take pressure off wild stocks and make it economically viable to retain natural forest.

The economic potential has attracted attention, not just from foresters, but from a variety of community activist groups. Several such organizations sponsored workshops where Syl taught his methods and provided starter seeds. Much of the interest in these workshops came from small farmers, often older people. “They’re interested in something that will keep the young people at home,” Syl said.

For Syl, the human community was part and parcel of ginseng growing. He started the Boone Sang Cooperative in his early years of planting, by publishing an invitation to a meeting in the local paper. About 25-30 people came. Half of them joined the coop, hoping to pool their small, individual, eventual harvests into an amount big enough to attract a big exporter.

Syl was also looking for ways to add value. He gave me a glass jar of Ginseng Conserve, which sold for $15. A blue ribbon held a handsome label: “Kentucky Mountain Wild.” Syl had handwritten the ingredients: Granny Smith apples, wild crab apples, wild blackberry, black walnut, honey, wild ginseng. Except for the apples, they all came from his own woods. The ginseng amounted to one-eighth of an ounce.

“At that rate,” Syl said, “a grower could get $500 a pound.”

When it came to marketing, Syl looked to tobacco as a model. Tobacco was one of the few crops left that small farmers could make money on, but it was under social siege. His first step was to develop a ginseng grading system to standardize root quality, in the way that tobacco leaves are graded. He compiled a bar graph of values by polling 300 dealers, growers, and academics on questions of taste, smell, and visual appearance.

It wasn’t easy to get that information, though. His first 50 questionnaires elicited not a single response. “Secrecy is ingrained in the system,” Syl said. “It runs through the business from diggers to the Mafia in Hong Kong. No one tells anyone anything. What finally did it for me was when I promised to send results of the poll to those that responded. Other people wanted to know, too.”

What Syl ultimately had in mind was piggy-backing the sale of virtually wild ginseng on the infrastructure of the tobacco industry. He wanted to cross-train tobacco graders to grade ginseng as well, and use the same warehouses and auction barns. He was also looking for markets for seeds, and he wanted to develop educational products like videos and other instructional materials.

I had to ask: “Do you believe in ginseng?”

“I’ve used it,” Syl said. “I saw ‘tumor hospitals’ when I traveled in China, and I knew the Chinese had always used it against tumors. So when I developed a bump on the back of my head that grew as big as my thumb tip, I started taking it. In two weeks the bump shrank to almost nothing.” You can’t argue with success.

There was another pressing question: “Why on earth are you so open about everything?”

“Secrecy has kept ginseng from being a recognized crop,” Syl said.

“Because of everybody being in the closet, its potential value is not known, and everyone wants to keep it that way. Dealers don’t want diggers to know how much the Chinese pay, so they can keep their own prices low. Poachers do worry me long-range, though. The way most people protect ginseng is don’t tell anyone.”

Poaching is rampant. Its extent can be judged from conditions in two Appalachian national parks, where all collecting is prohibited. During the 1990s, nearly 9,000 poached roots were confiscated in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and rangers were convinced they caught only a small percentage of illegal collectors. They took to sprinkling orange dye on wild roots to inhibit thieves, and even then found scrubbed roots with particles of dye in dealers’ bins.

Shenandoah National Park successfully prosecuted a ginseng poacher in 1998 for stealing 178 roots, but the penalty was hardly proportionate to the potential profit of the crime: the man was fined $300, ordered to pay $162 in restitution, and placed on probation for two years during which he was prohibited from entering the park.

Syl’s idea of security was to come out of the closet. He figured that if he was out in the open, the community would become aware of economic possibilities, and would become protective of growers.

“Landowners can see that if I’m successful, they might be too. I’ve only caught one set of poachers one time. I saw a strange car parked by the cemetery before my turn off. Then later, when I was working around the home site, I heard a ginseng hoe hit a rock. I walked over with a .410 shotgun pointed at chest height.

“One of them had a revolver. I made them strip so I could check their pockets for roots. I got their IDs and saw who they were, then I walked them to their car. A couple of days later I stopped in to see the sheriff. He asked if I knew who they were. He said give me their names and I’ll go talk to them. I haven’t had a problem since. Of course, if I had charged them it would have come out in the paper, and then I might have had more poachers.”

Excerpted from Groping Towards Harmony: True Tales of Sustainable Forestry in Appalachia, a book in progress to be published in 2002 by Stackpole Books. Chris Boligano is also the author of The Appalachian Forest: A Search for Roots and Renewal, and Mountain Lion.


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