Ginseng Dreams: The Secret World of America’s Most Valuable Plant. By Kristin Johannsen. 2006. University Press of Kentucky. 224 pages. $ 24.95
The rich, humus-laden hardwood forests of southern Appalachia are home to American ginseng, a bright-leaved, red-berried plant that grows wild throughout the mountains. Valued in Asia for the various health-promoting qualities of its roots, American ginseng has been exported from Appalachia since the 1700’s, and is the most valuable non-timber forest product in the southern mountains. Harvesting ginseng (or “sanging”) has long been a way that mountaineers have supplemented their incomes, and has tied Appalachia to the global economy since the days when traders plied the seas in wooden ships.
Why is ginseng so deeply rooted in the cultures of both Asia and Appalachia? The answers about this intriguing plant can be found in Kristin Johannsen’s Ginseng Dreams: The Secret World of America’s Most Valuable Plant. Known for her earlier book, Ecotourism in Appalachia: Marketing the Mountains, Johannsen is an experienced travel and environmental writer, and she brings both talents to bear as she explores the relationship between Asian markets and Appalachian forests. In this vein, she begins her narrative by juxtaposing a crowded Hong Kong ginseng market with a meeting of Appalachian ginseng gatherers, using this multicultural approach throughout this volume.
In the course of her research, Johannsen came across a curious magazine called The Ginseng Journal, which began publication in 1912 and ran for seven years. Published by an eccentric named Penn Kirk, The Ginseng Journal was a compendium of oddities and bizarre rants, but it also provides a snapshot of how important ginseng was to Americans a century ago. Johannsen uses her examination of Kirk’s strange little magazine as an effective springboard for discussing the history of ginseng in the American economy.
Johannsen travels extensively as she researches this book, talking to people in an effort to understand how this plant affects various economies and customs. She visits ginseng markets in China, and attends the annual Ginseng Festival in the small Korean town of Geumsan, where traditional pageantry coexists with cell phones and modern marketing. Her travels take her to commercial ginseng farms in Wisconsin, where she visits a company that produces 20 percent of the cultivated U.S. ginseng harvest. In eastern Kentucky, she spends time with scientists at the University of Kentucky’s agricultural station in the mountains, learning how ginseng grows in Appalachia. In Harlan, Kentucky, she attends a meeting of the Appalachian Ginseng Foundation, a group that teaches local folks how to cultivate ginseng in its native Appalachian environment.
Much of her narrative focuses on ginseng in Appalachia. She tromps through the Kentucky forests in search of ginseng with Jo Wolf, who monitors and inventories wild ginseng growth for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. She examines the environmental and economic trials ginseng harvesters face in contemporary Appalachia, where poachers and over-harvesting are a constant problem that threaten the health and sustainability of native ginseng. She hangs out with people whose families have harvested the same ginseng patch for generations, and who have faced armed ginseng poachers in the woods. Through investigative reporting and numerous interviews, she presents a carefully drawn picture of how and where ginseng grows in the highland forests, who harvests it and why, and what efforts are being made to cultivate the plant and develop it as a sustainable agricultural product.
In an effort to understand the relationship between how traditional medicine values ginseng and how modern, scientific medical practices view the plant’s possibilities, she spends some time with researchers at the Medical School of Southern Illinois University. Johannsen devotes an entire chapter to ginseng’s medicinal properties, noting that ginseng’s genus name (Panax) “is derived from the Greek pan (all) akos (cure), the source of the word panacea. The plant’s scientific name means, literally, cure-all.”
As Johannsen journeys from the deepest Appalachian forests to rural Korea, she enlightens and informs about the complex ways this root has influenced the medicine, folk customs, and economies of southern Appalachia and Asia. With Ginseng Dreams, Kristin Johannsen has produced a well-written narrative about a plant that has been incredibly important for centuries.