“Once in a while out there, you run into a bear,” said Miller, who lives in Lonaconing, a tiny Western Maryland town. “Last year, I ran into an old female, and two cubs walked up to me. That’s always exciting. Of course, occasionally you run into a rattlesnake.”
Hunting ginseng never made anyone filthy rich, but with the plant picked to near extinction in China and with Asians prizing American ginseng’s calming properties, a pound of high-quality root can net hunters more than $1,000. Miller stores his annual ginseng revenue in an envelope in a safe place.
“A friend of mine once sold 10 pounds and put a gas furnace in his house,” Miller said. “It’s a nice hobby. It’s part of the outdoor experience.”
That experience in Maryland is about to change. State officials recently banned ginseng hunting on state land after a study by Smithsonian scientists and an analysis of harvest records showed a dramatic drop in the number of plants across the state. In 2010, the wild harvest of ginseng in Maryland netted 143 pounds, according to state figures. That’s down from 227 pounds just 10 years before and 423 pounds in 1996.
In some places, including Montgomery and Baltimore counties, the plant appears to be totally gone. Western Maryland is the only place left to hunt, and even there, ginseng is more difficult to find, state officials say.
The story of ginseng’s decline in Maryland — and it is hurting throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast — is primarily one of economics and changing living patterns. China’s hunger for American ginseng has pushed up demand, leading to overpicking in a state where sprawl has overrun land once rich with foliage. And a decline in game hunting has been good news for white-tailed deer, which enjoy snacking on ginseng.
“Some of the prices for ginseng look now like the prices for illegal drugs,” said Jonathan A. McKnight, the state’s associate director for habitat conservation and the official who made the recommendation to ban ginseng hunting on state land. “But we have a declining population. I think the stuff is declining so rapidly that there weren’t many years of traditional picking left.”
Ginseng hunters are upset at McKnight. They will now have to dig on private lands — if they can get permission.
“I know it’s a tradition, and I hate to get in the way of it,” said McKnight, who nevertheless knows he is, in his words, “the Ginseng Grinch.”
During the past 30 years, ginseng hunting has evolved from a custom passed down through generations — families have secret honey holes whose locations are closely held secrets — to a global business connecting people deep in the woods to fast-talking brokers in New York who move roots to buyers on the other side of the world.
“It may be the most interesting plant in the world,” said James McGraw, a plant biologist and ginseng expert at West Virginia University.
“What other plant is desired by people on the other side of the world, that stimulates rural harvesters to go into the woods and know enough about botany to dig up a plant and sell it to an Asian buyer? It’s a remarkable economy.”
It works like this: Starting Sept. 1, ginseng hunters go into the woods, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, sometimes with grandchildren who have their very own $2 permits. They hunt for the plant: The stems are below knee-high, and the berries in the middle are bright red.
With any luck, hunters find a few plants, dig them up and pray that the roots resemble humans in their shape. The Chinese, for spiritual reasons, find those roots highly desirable and will pay a premium for them, breaking off and eating a leg, for instance, to help heal a bum leg. (Even without a human shape, American ginseng is coveted for its cool, calming qualities compared with the Chinese stuff. Think yin, yang.)
When Miller gets lucky, he goes home and calls James Fazenbaker, one of a dozen or so registered dealers in the state. Fazenbaker, a retired forest ranger, will bring a scale to Miller’s home, weigh the roots, pay him in cash and then find a broker in New York or a direct buyer in Asia.
Fazenbaker is not just a hunter and buyer. He uses the stuff in his tea. Asked what he does with the money, Fazenbaker said: “Gee whiz, it helps my hunting license and it pays for guns and shells and fishing rods and clothing and shoes and anything to help you out as far as your income.”
Only come this September, Fazenbaker, Miller and other hunters in the ginseng economy won’t have state land to hunt on.
“There will be a great reduction in where we can go,” said Miller, who has written letters to state officials bemoaning the recent decision. “You’re talking about thousands and thousands of acres. If you don’t have access to private grounds, you have no where to go.”
Fazenbaker added: “Gee whiz, if you can’t hunt it, you can’t hunt it.”
But ginseng can be grown, and the ban affecting state land could be good news for Maryland ginseng growers.
There are a few varieties of ginseng. There’s the wild stuff, which hunters dig up in the middle of nowhere. Then there’s cultivated, which is grown in raised beds, often in artificial shade. (Wisconsin, although known for cheese, is the largest cultivated ginseng producer in the country.) And then there’s wild-simulated ginseng, which is planted in the woods and left essentially on its own to fight nature and be nurtured by it.
Wild ginseng brings the highest prices because its gnarly roots are the most potent. Cultivated brings the lowest prices — less gnarly, less potent. But the wild-simulated can fetch prices up there with the truly wild stuff, especially as wild ginseng becomes more difficult to find.
Steve Galloway grows both the wild-simulated and the woods-cultivated ginseng on seven acres of rolling land behind his home in the rural outskirts of Frederick. Galloway, a technical writer who writes manuals for air conditioners and humidifiers, became interested in ginseng after reading an article about the plant in Mother Earth News. His company, Catoctin Mountain Botanicals, sells ginseng around the world.
“Most ginseng growers are infatuated by it,” Galloway said, surveying his plants one recent evening with a walking stick in hand. “We tend to be obsessive-compulsive about it. ”
To keep deer away, Galloway has strung CDs around his property. The reflection apparently gives deer bad vibes about the path ahead. Galloway comes home for lunch every day and checks his increasingly valuable plants, making sure no poachers are stealing them. He also sells ginseng that other hunters dig up.
Another grower, Larry Harding, the proprietor of Harding’s Wild Mountain Herbs in Western Maryland, raises wild-simulated ginseng on more than 50 acres, making him a sort of ginseng kingpin.
Both growers realize that their bottom lines could benefit from the ban, but as part of a tightknit ginseng economy, they also realize that their operations could be beneficial to the wild plants.
“We can take some of the pressure off,” Harding said. “We’re the next best thing.”
McKnight, the Ginseng Grinch, is hoping that’s what happens. Otherwise, the next step could be a total ban on wild ginseng harvesting, which at least 15 states have done. Miller and other ginseng hunters fear that such a decision is near.
But state officials hope that over time, with a ban in place on state land, the plant will recover, much as rockfish did in the Cheseapake Bay after a five-year moratorium on taking rockfish ended in the early 1990s.
“We really hope to be able to see a recovery on state lands,” McKnight said.
By the time that happens, there might not be anyone left in the ginseng economy, which is populated primarily by a graying, older, non-smartphone-using population — people who like to get their hands dirty and experience nature while actually in nature. There aren’t a lot of young people interested in ginseng, except to slurp up in an energy drink.
“The next generation isn’t as interested as we are,” Galloway said. “They aren’t as interested in hunting. They’d rather sit behind their computer and play Atari. We’re losing part of this culture.”