September’s Song

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There is no other time of year that it is so magical when the seasons change as it is from August to September. The first few days of September catches us up in two different worlds. Almost overnight, there is a crispness in the air and yet the sun is warm on our backs. We are savoring the end of the garden’s bounty as we eagerly await fall’s offerings of apples, winter squash, and other root crops. Perhaps Jack London best described this magical time as the “sun-kissed September afternoons.”

With everything that fall has to offer, this year I was introduced to another facet of this season. This is the time of year that folks hunt wild ginseng. The much sought-after American ginseng is a perennial herb that is native to the deciduous forests of the eastern United States. The wild counterparts are believed to be much more potent than the cultivated roots, hence poaching and unethical harvesting practices have reduced the supply in recent years.

The health benefits of ginseng are almost endless. It is touted to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, protect against stress, enhance strength, promote relaxation, and the list goes on. It is especially revered in the Orient. There they believe that the older the roots are, the more desirable they are because the longevity is purported to be transferred to the person who consumes it.

Only mature plants are legal to harvest and they take years to mature, but they currently command a price between $500 and $600 per pound. Roughly, it takes about 250 dried roots to equal a pound. No wonder the illegal harvesting of ginseng has become a problem with harvesters slinking through woods in face paint and camouflage and armed with tire irons, screw drivers and hoes. Ginseng is big business.

However, done legally, it can be quite a satisfying endeavor, both in the hunting and in the financial benefits. After all, what a more pleasant time to go for a walk in the woods and, if you happen on ginseng, it can be an extra bonus. The main thing is to find out the rules for the state you are in and adhere to them completely.

Wild ginseng is regulated in 19 states and it is restricted or prohibited in the others. The designated harvest season is September 1 through November 30 each year. It is never legal to hunt in state parks, state forest areas, or on other public lands. If going on private land other than your own, always make sure you have permission before you go.

As with anything you are hunting in the wild, go where it grows instead of wandering aimlessly. Ginseng likes well-shaded areas, especially on the north or east slopes of moist hardwood forests. The right combination of shade and moisture makes an area most conducive for it to grow. Ginseng also favors deep, dark soil that is covered in leaf litter. Forests that have beech, maple, hickory, oak, basswood and poplars are good bets as it grows in the shade of these trees.

It is also helpful to look for companion plants, which are plants that favor the same habitat and growing conditions as ginseng. These include trillium, bloodroot, cohosh, jack-in-the-pulpit, wild yam, goldenseal and Solomon’s seal.

Be sure you can identify the ginseng plant because there are look-a-like plants that will waste your time digging. True wild ginseng has a single stem that ends in a whorl (a single plant that the leaves originate from) of one to four leaves. Each leaf has three to five leaflets, or smaller leaves. If a plant is mature it will produce six to 20 whitish-green flowers in summer that eventually produce a cluster of red berries in the fall.

It is important that only mature plants with red berries are harvested. In a perfect world, two-thirds of the mature plants should be left to propagate for the next season.  Clip the leaves from all two, three and four-pronged plants as they are not yet mature and clipping the leaves will not harm the plant but will prevent anyone from harvesting them before their time.

When you do plan to harvest, be sure and dig carefully, taking care not to damage the roots. A pitch fork or needle spade works well to dig under the whole plant, leaving 6 inches between where you push the fork in the ground and the plant itself. After digging up the root, squeeze the berries to remove the seeds and then plant them within 2 to 6 feet of the parent plant. You want to plant them in the same area because the conditions there have proven to be a good environment for the growth of ginseng, but not so close that disease transmission can occur.

Finally, roots need to be washed and dried. Soak the roots in a bucket of water to remove excess soil. Do not wash them under a faucet or hose or scrub them because buyers desire some soil to be left on and the surface of the roots can be damaged easily. After washing them, place them in a single layer on a screen or wooden rack and allow to dry in a well-ventilated room, making sure they are not touching. This process takes about two weeks and when the roots are dry they should easily snap into two parts.

After this step, the work is mostly done and you can reap the benefits of your labor. Most states have a list of licensed ginseng dealers that purchase the roots from diggers.

I love to walk in the woods, and hunting ginseng along the way just makes the walk a little sweeter.