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October 2012

Digging the Root

The search for elusive Adirondack ginseng

BOB BEYFUSS KNOWS as much about ginseng as anyone in North America. In the mid-1980s at Cornell University he wrote his master’s thesis on the history of American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). He has hunted the wild root in more than 17 states (it grows in 34) and regularly leads seminars on how to cultivate the plant, which is often used to relieve stress and fatigue. He’s published guides for growing ginseng and sells his own elixir—Bob’s Catskill Mountain Ginseng—in capsule form. He’s a firm believer in its regenerative powers: he takes a few drops of a ginseng tincture—which he makes by steeping the root in 100-proof vodka—in his orange juice every morning.

Last October, when I met Beyfuss in Lake Placid at the Cornell sugar-maple re­search center, it did not take long for him to show me a zip­lock bag of 40- to 60-year-old roots, about $2,000 worth of Adi­rondack ginseng. Its value is a function of both weight and age; older plants, which sometimes weigh less, typically com­mand higher prices. A pound can sell from $100 to $600, but it’s not unheard of for a single root to go for as much as $10,000—one high-end retailer in New York City’s Chinatown posts bodyguards at the door and has a private room in back for negotiations. Last year, the state’s largest dealer, based in New York City, sold more than three million dollars worth of ginseng, most of it to China. A large percentage of that ginseng—close to 90 percent—was purchased from out of state, primarily Ap­palachia, where the plant is more common. According to Doug Schmid, New York State ginseng coordinator at the De­part­ment of Environmental Conservation (DEC), 900 pounds of fresh ginseng and just under 300 pounds of dried ginseng root were harvested in New York and exported out of state in 2010.

Beyfuss holds up a gnarled specimen about the size of an in­dex finger and points out its deeply textured surface. It looks like a stunted carrot or parsnip—especially the wild variety—though ginseng grows sideways in the soil rather than straight up and down. Generally, the older the root the more wrinkles and ridges it will have. (A ginseng root produces shoots that die back every year, leaving scars that, like the rings on a tree, allow you to ap­proximate its age.) Ginseng, whose name is derived from the Chinese term for “image of man” or “man-root,” resembles the growth pattern of hu­man beings: the root gets bigger for about the first two-thirds of its life cycle and then begins to shrink and shrivel. Some believe that the older the root the more chi, or energy, it has absorbed from the earth. The root in Beyfuss’s hand is probably 50 to 60 years old, which makes it highly valuable.

Beyfuss plans to clean, dry and sell this bag of Adirondack ginseng—harvested during six outings with three other diggers—to a Chinese buyer in San Francisco. Holding up another root, Beyfuss surmises that it is 35 to 40 years old and had been partially eaten by a critter, most likely a mouse. The growth of a third root, smaller than the others, was impeded by something, probably a tree that had fallen across its path. “I think about the life they led,” says Beyfuss, “what they’ve seen. I keep looking for that 300-year-old root.” He adds, “I’ll probably fall off a mountain and die when I find it.”

Morel hunters are notoriously secretive about where they forage. Even those who gather ramps and fiddlehead ferns can be protective of the spots that they’ve discovered. But ginseng hunters belong to another class altogether. “The digging of wild ginseng is basically a very secretive pastime,” says Dave Hicks, a long-time dealer in Gran­ville, east of Lake George. “I mean, if you’ve got a good ginseng digger next door, chances are you wouldn’t even know he was digging ginseng.”

As Beyfuss points out, it takes a lot of careful work to get a dry pound—what amounts to between 100 and 300 roots. He says if he ends up with a half-pound or a pound of dried roots in a single season he considers it a good year. “You spend a lot of time on your knees for not a lot of reward and that’s why it’s a labor of love,” he says. “People who think they’re going to go out and dig wild ginseng and they’re going to make all this mon­ey be­cause they hear of some of these prices that are being paid, well, not so much. It’s an activity that people enjoy just as people enjoy hunting or fishing and things like that.”

Unlike hunting and fishing, though, you don’t need much more than a day pack and a good pair of boots to dig ginseng. Beyfuss, who sports a colorful life-size tattoo of a ginseng plant on his right arm, prefers a long flat-head screwdriver when he’s not using his fingers to dig the dirt around the root without damaging it. The Adirondack Museum, in Blue Mountain Lake, has a ginseng root harvester found in Tupper Lake from the mid- to late 19th century. It has a wide two-pronged fork on one side and a spadelike tool on the other. Beyfuss also carries a “ginseng stick”—what he says is a good-luck charm made from an old butternut tree—when he forages.

Despite ginseng being relatively easy to identify when in bloom, with prominent leaves and bright red berries, it has long been thought of as a kind of shape-shifting, even dangerous plant. According to one popular Chinese myth, the devil takes the form of the ginseng root and, when pursued, retreats farther and farther into the woods until the hunter loses his way and dies.As Beyfuss and I head off through Cornell’s forest, he pauses briefly to update his GPS. He says, “The data on that de­vice is worth more than any other GPS in the world.”

THE GINSENG TRADE in North America had its beginnings just north of the Adirondacks outside of Montreal. In 1715 a Jesuit missionary, Joseph-François Lafitau, with the help of Native Canadians who had used the plant for many years, identified ginseng near a settlement on the south bank of the St. Lawrence River. Soon a gold rush–like mentality gripped the region. Na­tives and colonists alike searched for the valuable root. Thirty years later it was nearly extinct in Canada and, according to David A. Taylor in Ginseng, the Divine Root, “The Iroquois had to venture far into the English colonies to dig enough for the French merchants of La Rochelle.” Though it’s impossible to prove, there’s little reason to doubt that they would have searched for ginseng in the Adirondacks. “If you follow the routes that the fur traders trapped, well, ginseng basically traveled the same route,” says Beyfuss. “Anyone who was in the fur business back then was also in the ginseng business.” For those dealing in furs and timber, getting in on the lucrative ginseng trade was only logical—scouting for winter trapping sites in the fall was the best time to look for the plant and a good way to make extra money.

In the Adirondacks the ginseng and fur trades still overlap. Dave Hicks also buys and sells furs, hides and rifles. “My father started this business in 1936,” he says, “and basically we’ve always bought ginseng long before they had any rules and regulations on it. You’ve got a lot of woodspeople that go out—this is passed down from generation to generation—and do a lot of preseason scouting for where they might do some trapping. At the same time they’d harvest ginseng. Because we’re also in the fur business it went kind of hand-in-hand.”

In a good year Hicks will broker a couple hundred pounds of ginseng, much of it from the North Country and most of it to the same Chinese family he’s dealt with for more than 35 years.

Marty Paddock grew up in Whitehall and has hunted ginseng for decades. He learned from his father, who was also a hunter and trapper, and says that he hasn’t noticed much of a change in wild ginseng populations. Last year he harvested about 20 pounds, some close to a century old. “I’m a very selective digger,” he says. “I dig what I want and there’s always more there.”

Ginseng has been cultivated in the Adirondacks since at least the early 1900s. In 1904 L. A. Childs, of Chazy, exhibited his crop at the Clinton County Fair, the first public display in northern New York. A year later and about 150 miles to the west, the Lowville Journal proudly reported that two of its citizens were raising ginseng.

“Ginseng has come into great prominence in this state,” a Cornell scientist noted in 1904. “We are just beginning to learn how to grow it well.” Not long after, however, a fungal disease wiped out local crops. A 1929 article in Low­ville’s Black River Democrat lamented that a longtime grower had “given up cultivation of the herb due to a disease which attacked the roots, making it impossible to grow a profitable crop.”

In the late 1990s Beyfuss transplanted wild roots from Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and other states to Lake Placid’s Cornell research station to study the plant’s genetic variability and to see if it could survive in this climate. The middle of a sugar-maple grove with plenty of shady north-northeast facing slopes happens to be an ideal environment for ginseng. Sugar maples provide the plant with the two elements it needs to thrive—water and calcium. They are one of the only trees capable of hydraulic lift, a phenomenon by which the roots bring substantial quantities of water from as deep as 100 to 200 feet below the surface. That water is released and reabsorbed through capillary roots within the top layer of soil. Ginseng, an herbaceous perennial, requires a lot of moisture and takes advantage of the maple’s unique abilities. In addition, sugar-maple leaves have a relatively high percentage of calcium concentrated in their tissue. When the trees shed their leaves in the fall the calcium accumulates in the soil. “Most of the ginseng root is found in the top three or four inches of soil where those sugar-maple leaves are releasing the calcium,” says Beyfuss.

Leaving the research station we follow an old service road for a quarter of a mile. Beyfuss wanders off into the woods and throws his bag down near a stand of maples. Because the ginseng plants fruited early this year it is especially difficult to locate where the roots might be. Berries ripen at different times at different latitudes; Beyfuss has found plants in the Adirondacks as late as the first week of November. So despite a designated ginseng season—September 1 through November 30 in New York—optimum harvest time varies.

“If you get four weeks out of the North Country, you’re lucky,” says Marty Paddock. The easiest time to identify the plant may be when it’s dying down. Paddock, who says he wouldn’t touch mushrooms—“Can’t half tell them apart”—likens the yellow color of the full leaves to a neon strobe light. “Ain’t no other yellow like it. You can spot it from a long ways away,” he says.

Not all ginseng plants can be harvested. It is illegal to pick immature plants—those with fewer than three leaves—or plants with green, unripe fruit. It is against the law to harvest ginseng on state land. Last year, according to the New York Conservation Officers Association, two men were ticketed near Ithaca for harvesting ginseng out of season, trespassing and removing plants from state land.

As we survey the test plot in search of ginseng, Beyfuss suggests digging a blind hole. We might get lucky. Perched on his side on the ground he begins to dig with his thumb and forefinger, quickly dispatching several inches of dirt. “Your fingers have to feel which way the root goes,” he says. After a few minutes he turns up a large tangled specimen. He brushes off some dirt and holds it up in the late afternoon sun. “This is truly wild ginseng,” he says. “Just not from New York.” He guesses it was probably a 25-year-old transplant from Virginia or Tennessee.

For every root he digs, Beyfuss says he plants at least 100 seeds. In New York State the law requires that harvesters plant all seeds from wild ginseng within 50 feet of the place of collection. The natural survival rate of ginseng seeds is quite low—between three and five percent, according to Beyfuss. Those planted by hand have about an 85 percent chance of succeeding. Paddock’s advice is simple: “Always plant the seeds in the same area, always. Never dig anything under a decent three prong. And don’t touch nothing small.”

Beyfuss says responsible harvesting is the key to the plant’s continued survival in New York State and elsewhere. “I would make the argument that if it were not for responsible diggers and stewards taking care of ginseng and propagating it and keeping it alive it might very well be extinct or extirpated in more places than it currently is,” he says. But overharvesting has led to catastrophic declines and there is frequent discussion of the sustainability of America’s wild populations. Wild American ginseng was included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 1975. When Canada banned the export of wild ginseng in Quebec in the mid-1970s and in Ontario in the late 1980s, poaching escalated and the plant is now endangered if not extinct there. The provinces have since become the largest exporter of cultivated ginseng, which, to be profitable, must be grown on a very large scale.

According to DEC ginseng coordinator Doug Schmid, there are few good assessments of wild populations in New York State. But, he says, the fact that it cannot be harvested on state land virtually ensures its survival. The greater concern, especially among dealers, is that ginseng hunters are dying without having passed along their knowledge to a new generation. Paddock knows a handful of other diggers—maybe eight or nine—but they’re all in their 50s or older. His two sons have learned the trade but he fears that the younger population at large has little interest in this storied plant. “Every year I’m losing some of my better diggers,” says Hicks.

“Every year these guys are just getting old on me and they’re tipping over. Once they pass away those beds are still out there, waiting to be rediscovered. Because these guys don’t draw a map and hand it to somebody.”

GINSENG HOT SPOT
by Fred Raymond McCulley (1929–2010), trapper and naturalist from Lake Placid

When I arrived in the Adirondacks in the 1990s, I found myself amidst a potential Eden for ginseng. (I’d had considerable experience looking for the valuable plant in the Ap­palachian and Ozark forests.) After searching for more than a month I had my reward: in a foot-wide circle of humus I saw a slender, straight, yellowish stalk, dried and shriveled, and beside it a cluster of radial fingers like the tines of a tiny umbrella that had held berries. Digging with pruning shears, and finally with my hands, I unearthed a nine- inch ginseng root nearly an inch thick.

The next spring and summer I began an all- out search for ginseng, even infecting two of my sons with the fever. We searched countless deciduous forests, covering elevations from 2,400 feet to as low as 700 feet, and by July we knew that my discovery the previous fall was a “sweet spot.” That irregularly contoured square, approximately 150 yards on a side, supported large, bountifully producing plants.

Immediately around that area were a few relatively small plants. I could see that their fruiting clusters were still in their tiny, infantile state, while the large plants inside the “sweet spot” had many red, ripe fruits. Since these lonely fringe plants were essentially sterile, and the remaining square miles of woods I searched had absolutely no ginseng, I was left with the question: Why does that one small section of woods have a growing season which is long enough for ginseng plants to luxuriate, germinate and reproduce? I was mulling the mystery with my son Bill when he said, “Maybe you’ve found a plot of geothermal ginseng.” 

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