Virginia's hunting season for wild ginseng began last weekend, not with the loud reports of guns in the woods, but with the soft shoveling sound of trowels.
The popular Oriental medicinal plant, which sells to exporters for $100 to $150 a pound, is the only plant with a state-regulated hunting season -- and poachers.
National Park Service rangers issue dozens of citations -- with $50 fines -- every year to people caught with their shovels down along the Blue Ridge Parkway, where it is illegal to dig ginseng or any other plants. U.S. Forest Service officers also annually have arrested dozens of " 'sang hunters," or "singers," as ginseng hunters are often called, in the Jefferson and George Washington National Forests -- where "singing" is legal but only with special permits during the fall hunting season.
A few mountains further north, in Maryland, officials are now investigating two men for allegedly digging about 4,000 wild ginseng out of season -- worth about $10,000 -- in Maryland's Garrett County.
The dried roots of wild American ginseng have been exported to the Orient since colonists came upon the plants 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 still go for wild roots.
Ginseng is still relatively common in Virginia, Maryland and 14 other states. There are even a few scattered plants in the wild near Washington's Beltway, according to William Gimpel of Maryland's Department of Agriculture. Gimpel used to take friends and fellow botanists to see the plants, but stopped because "somehow or other the plants always seem to disappear after I show them to somebody."
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.
Like Virginia and a dozen states along the Appalachian chain, Maryland also has a fall ginseng hunting season, to ensure that plants are dug only after their seeds have scattered. Maryland and some states additionally require permits of all ginseng hunters and allow the taking of only mature plants -- "three prongers" or plants with three branches of leaves.
But it is the odd-shaped, carrot-like root that is stalked by "singers." If the root resembles a man -- and some have a puppet-like, Pinocchio look -- it is prized in the Orient as an aphrodisiac.
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 it a cure for almost everything. Even American health food stores now stock ginseng in a profusion of forms including teas, tablets, powders and various "concoctions," says Gimpel. "I've tried it, the dried root, but I didn't like it. Too bitter."
Since the small roots can be easily stuffed in pockets and knapsacks, it often is hard to detect a ginseng poacher. However, Gene Parker, Park Service ranger on the Blue Ridge Parkway, said this week "there are all sorts of giveaways, such as dirty finger nails or digging tools."
Ginseng is not on the U.S. Endangered Species list but its export is controlled under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which means it is potentially threatened by international trade, says Joseph Dowhan, staff botanist with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The ginseng season in Virginia runs through Dec. 31. The number of legal and illegal "singers" in Virginia is unknown, though thought to be 1,000 or more, because only those who buy or resell ginseng need be licensed (at $10 each). That list last year had about 50 names on it, according to state officials.