Maryland's hunting season for doves begins Sept. 1, for wild turkey and rabbits Nov. 6, for deer (with bows) Sept. 14 and for ginseng (with shovels) today.
Ginseng, the popular Oriental medicinal plant that sells to exporters for $100 to $150 a pound, is the only plant with a state-regulated hunting season, a state-required hunting license ($2) and a required minimum size for the catch: "three-prongers," or plants with three leafy branches, says William Gimpel, acting chief of the plant protection section of Maryland's Department of Agriculture.
Like deer, ginseng are popular with poachers, and easier to conceal. Two previously licensed ginseng hunters now are under investigation, says Gimpel, for allegedly capturing about 4,000 wild ginseng plants -- worth about $10,000 -- in Maryland's westernmost Garrett County out of season.
Exporting the dried roots of wild American ginseng has been going on since colonists came upon them in the Appalachian mountains in the early 1700s. While most of the$39 million worth of ginseng exported from this country last year was grown commercially, the highest prices go for the wild roots.
Ginseng's Latin genus name, Panax, is derived from the Greek word for panacea, and for more than 1,000 years the Chinese have considered the plant to be a cure for almost everything. Even American health food stores now stock it in a profusion of forms including teas, tablets, powders and various "concoctions," says Gimpel, who reports: "I've tried it, the dried root, but I didn't like it. Too bitter."
Ginseng still is relatively common in the Virginia and Maryland mountains and in 14 other states, and there even are a few scattered plants in the wild near Washington's Beltway, says Gimpel. But he no longer takes even fellow botanists to see them because "somehow or other, the plants always seem to disappear after I show them to some--body."
Ginseng "is difficult to spot to untrained eyes because it looks like a lot of other plants, including things like Virginia creeper," says Gimpel, "but trained ginseng hunters can spot them 20 yards away." The number of leaves depends on the age of the plant, which adds to the spotting difficulty, he says.
But it is the odd-shaped, carrot-like root of the " 'sang" that is sought by "singers," as ginseng hunters are often called. If the root resembles a man -- and some have a puppet-like, Pinocchio look -- it is particularly prized in the Orient as an aphrodisiac.
The plants are not on the U.S. endangered species list, but their export is controlled under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which means that they are potentially threatened by international trade, says Joseph Dowhan, staff botanist with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The ginseng season in Maryland, which continues through Dec. 1, is designed to help propagate the plants by postponing the taking of ginseng until after the seeds have matured and scattered. It generally takes five or six years for a plant to get three leaves and to have a large enough root to harvest, said Gimpel.
There were about 110 licensed "singers" in Maryland last year, Gimpel said. Despite their relatively small number, there is no limit to how many ginseng plants they can bag during the season.
But if the two "singers" currently under investigation for poaching are charged and convicted, they may be singing a different tune, Gimpel said. They would be subject to a $500 fine and six months in jail.