Rob Newman has two guns behind him, a taser in his pocket, and his eyes on a silver truck. He’s noticed something curious: a toolbox with the lock casually hanging open. “What does he think he’s going to put in there later that might be worth something?” Newman says, calling the truck’s tag in to dispatch.
When he became a ranger, Newman vowed to uphold the National Park Service mission to protect the parklands, leaving them in good shape for future generations. And, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, there’s one living resource that needs more advocacy than others: ginseng.
For most people, Parkway locales evoke memories of family outings. For Newman, they trigger ginseng enforcement flashbacks. There’s the rhododendron stand where he spent six hours on a stakeout. A trail he traced to a biological crime site. The overlook where he caught a couple stuffing poached ginseng roots under a car seat.
He scours the roadside as he drives, his gaze rolling over grassy knolls and into forest understory. “I’m not good at spotting the plant,” he says. “But I’m good at spotting the people who are after it.”
In the forest, everything craves ginseng. Turkeys scratch at the seed; deer graze the leaves and berries; voles burrow into soil to chew its root. In China, human hankering for the root, and a rising middle class that can afford it, have escalated prices to $1,200 per pound some years. The hot market for the root has inspired reality TV shows, like National Geographic’s Smoky Mountain Money, and renewed fervor among diggers in Appalachia. The subsequent overharvest — along with rising deer populations and increased human development — have put the species at risk.
For thousands of years, traditional Chinese medicine has used varieties of ginseng to treat poor digestion, nausea, laryngitis, and a host of energy-depleting disorders. Appalachian diggers have been gathering the plant for trade with China almost ever since. In 1837, 86,000 pounds of the root were extracted from a single North Carolina valley. Almost all of it went overseas.
Western medicine is still investigating the plant’s benefits. Some studies suggest that North American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, can be used to treat diabetes and respiratory infections. But ginseng roots aren’t just valued for their medicinal properties in China. They’re appreciated as works of art. Among China’s upper class, these roots are sometimes gifted as decorative symbols of health and well-being.
In Hong Kong, at this very minute, roots extracted from North Carolina soil are on display in glass cases. They still have dirt in their folds, compressed as it would have been under the fingernails of the digger who found the plant where it had grown, undisturbed, for half a century. The darker the dirt, the more desirable the specimen. The more knurled the root, the more valuable. These contortions prove that the plant faced hardship. Yet, year after year, it prevailed.
• • •
Newman’s radio hisses. The truck’s tag is clear. The driver doesn’t have any poaching infractions. He gives a little nod. That’s what he figured, but he always follows up on instinct. Because, too often, it’s right: Newman has had more ginseng cases than anyone else in his department. He isn’t sure why; he only knows that the more time he spends getting to know the land in his charge, the better he gets at catching the people who harm it.
They come with hiking poles and walking sticks retrofitted for digging. It’s paraphernalia that Newman is always dismayed to discover. “I’m not in this to be a cop,” he says. “If people are going to dig ginseng, I just want them to dig responsibly — and never on national park land.”
To the south of Newman’s post, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has had severe problems with poachers, some apprehended with 800 roots in their bags. In an effort to thwart the trend, rangers have stealthily marked some plants for tracking. Other plants have been injected with dye that ruins market value. “If you poach ginseng here, you’re going to get jail time,” Newman says. “And you’re going to pay restitution for the loss of the resource and the time it takes to replant what’s been extracted — if it isn’t too late.”
When Newman has a ginseng case, he delivers the living evidence to biologist and natural resource manager Lillian McElrath as soon as he can. McElrath has worked in the park for more than 23 years. She grew up in Ashe County, where her father would send her out in the woods and call her in after the sun set. “He used to say that when I went into the woods, I was like a bird set out of a cage,” she says.
Spending time in nature provides McElrath with a welcome counter to the stresses of daily life. In Chinese culture, ginseng is renowned for its ability to promote balance — energizing waning spirits and calming fiery ones. McElrath can virtually feel her blood pressure drop in the presence of a yellow lady’s slipper. Which is why she’s so well versed in the allure of ginseng: The root used to inspire the same stress-relieving awe as wildflowers when she saw it, even though its teardrop-shaped leaves are relatively inconspicuous. But now, it’s too rare. “When I see ginseng now,” she says, “my first reaction is: How am I going to protect it?” She feels a little differently when she comes across a transplanted evidence specimen that’s survived. “When I spot those,” she says, “it’s like witnessing a little bit of hope rising from the ground.”
• • •
The way Tony Hayes sees it, ginseng would be extinct if it weren’t for responsible, traditional diggers who respect the plant and guard it against unscrupulous hunters. He says as much to the man standing before him in the small, cinder-block building where Hayes has set up to buy ginseng.
Hayes is what’s known in the ginseng trade as a consolidator. Today, he’s in Mitchell County, working directly with diggers, but he typically purchases large quantities of ginseng from other buyers. He started acquiring roots in 1973 for Lowe Fur & Herb Company, Inc., and in 1982 became a representative of Boone’s Wilcox Drug Company, which was founded in 1900. The now-defunct business was a ginseng house of national note. When it closed, Hayes and his wife started Ridge Runner Trading in Boone, which handles up to 10 percent of the United States’ wild ginseng market.
The digger tells Hayes, “If the plant had seeds, I put them back into the hole I dug.”
Hayes nods in approval. “Next time, you can spread them out a little. If you go ahead and bust them up, it’ll help them germinate,” he says. A seed that’s correctly planted by human hands is much more likely to take than one that falls to the ground on its own, and Hayes knows that educating diggers is crucial to ginseng’s survival. Historically, people have been a great ally of the species, often tending to found woodland plots — propagating and protecting them in a way that blurs the definition of wild and cultivated.
The digger is wearing blue coveralls and scuffed boots. He sets a flannel shirt on Hayes’s desk and unfolds it to reveal three fistfuls of ginseng. Hayes examines each root, running his index finger along the bud scars on its rhizome, or neck. Each year, when the root sprouts, it creates a new knob. The plant can lie dormant, so it might be older than the number of scars it bears, but never younger. Legally, a root has to have at least four bud scars to be considered for trade.
The digger mashes a baseball cap in his hand as Hayes goes over the details, sliding paperwork across the desk to be signed — confirmation that the digger acquired the ginseng legally. Hayes pulls a choice root off the top of the pile and admires it. “With digging, there used to be a rule of thumb: If it wasn’t as large as your thumb, you’d put it back into the ground,” he says. The digger admits that he saw plenty that were too young to take. Hayes suggests that, next time, he should break off the tops of those plants to prevent anyone from taking them. It’s a protective technique that national park employees use on occasion.
Before leaving, the digger tells Hayes that the ginseng came from land belonging to his uncle, who’d enjoyed taking his nephew into the woods. The shared quest for ginseng had given them a chance to reconnect. For Hayes, this was an ideal transaction. But they aren’t all like that.
Later in the day, he receives a young client who went digging without guidance. He’s carrying his roots in plastic — Hayes’s first indication that the teenager doesn’t know what he’s doing. Ginseng does better stored in a cardboard shoebox, where it can breathe. Hayes hands too-small plants back to the boy, one at a time. “I can’t accept this,” he says. “You need to replant this.”
Soon, the boy is holding a bouquet of roots the size of pipe cleaners.
Hayes rolls a particularly slender root between his thumb and index finger and inhales — root beer. “Sarsaparilla,” he says, placing it in the boy’s palm. “You can go make yourself some tea out of that.”
By the time Hayes has inspected every root, the first-time digger is left with just two viable ginseng specimens. He’s paid $3. Undeterred, he says he’ll be back the following week.
As he walks out of the building, Hayes calls out: “Remember, a fisherman doesn’t take every fish out of the water. You’ve got to throw the small ones back so someday there’ll be more!”
• • •
Watauga County Agricultural Extension Director Jim Hamilton loves ginseng. Around the office, his coworkers call him “Jim-seng.” He studies it, teaches workshops on how to plant it, drinks daily smoothies sprinkled with it. And, this morning, he’s on a mission to save some of it.
Not long ago, he met a landowner who was set to clear-cut timber, and Hamilton secured permission to check the property for ginseng ahead of heavy machinery. He drives along a rutted road and parks near an embankment. Before entering the unfamiliar woods, he runs his hand along the edge of a note in his pocket. If a sheriff’s deputy catches him digging, he’ll need to have written permission on him.
“This land’s been clear-cut before,” he says, eyeing a young witch hazel tree. He scans the forest floor, looking for other complementary plants that tend to grow near ginseng — things like bloodroot and black cohosh, each with its own medicinal properties. Soon, it will all be gone. “Historically, the forest was considered a medicine cabinet and a pantry,” he says. “A lot of that knowledge is being lost.”
Suddenly, he spies a ginseng plant. “Bingo!” he says. Again and again.
After he’s gathered several roots, he encounters a gigantic white oak. “It takes a white oak a long time to get that big,” he says, estimating that it’s 200 or 300 years old, maybe left by a settler as the lone shade tree in a plowed field. The tree towering over him was likely alive before North Carolina was a state. “It’s amazing, isn’t it? All this beauty,” he says. “Every set of woods is different, just like every root.”
The vast majority of ginseng exported from the United States isn’t found by happenstance in the wild, but is cultivated in artificially shaded fields in Wisconsin, where crops are treated with fungicides and other substances. But some of it is grown in a third way, as wild-simulated ginseng, which means that the roots are planted by human hands but otherwise allowed to grow naturally.
It’s a sustainable industry that Hamilton is working to establish in the High Country. Under his guidance, one of the largest wild-simulated ginseng farms in the country has been established in a local stand of pine trees. Hamilton needs to gather more plants for a rootlet distribution project he’s working on in support of small-scale growers.
It’s September, mid-digging season, and ginseng leaves have already started to turn. At the farm, he braves a patch of poison ivy to lean his backpack against a tree trunk. Then, he gets to work, pushing back a blanket of pine needles.
Ginseng is everywhere.
In total, Travis Cornett of High Country Ginseng has planted more than 20 acres on the farm.
When Cornett, an electrical contractor who grew up hunting the plant, learned about wild-simulated ginseng farming, he saw potential to support the species and his finances. At least 10 other farmers in Watauga County are growing the plant on a small scale. Most of them have ever-witnessing security cameras and, with a crop that takes years to mature, a great deal of patience.
When Hamilton’s backpack is full of permitted roots, he slings it over his shoulder. This morning, he was a ginseng hunter; this afternoon, he’s a farmer. If you saw him coming out of the woods now, you might mistake him for a poacher.
His stash of roots — a mix of wild and wild-simulated — are identical to the untrained eye.
“In this region, there’s potential to shift from timber extraction to medicinal plant production,” he says, pausing to catch his breath on the steep climb back to his car. Already, local entrepreneurs are finding innovative ways to utilize the bounty of wild-simulated ginseng. One grower has started making herbal tea out of discarded plant leaves. A brewery in Boone is experimenting with root-infused ginseng ale. It’s too late for non-timber forest products to save the formidable white oak that Hamilton met earlier. But what if its owner had been introduced to ginseng cultivation, years ago, as an alternative to unsustainable forms of logging?
Imperiled ginseng might, against all odds, ultimately help protect the forests it depends on.
Hamilton breathes deeply, inhaling the scent of pine needles and the rich soil that’s drying in the creases of his fingers. “Digging for ginseng is like looking for hidden treasure, but it’s also just a good excuse to get into the woods. Time slows down out here. I could stay all day,” he says. “You know the plant’s name, Panax? The root of the word means ‘everything.’ That’s what the Chinese say: Ginseng is good for everything, if you use it right.”