Every August, when summer seemed hottest, Jim Fazenbaker used to head for Western Marylands's rugged Appalachian foothills and roam deep into the woods, searching in the cool shade for the fingerlike leaves and bright red berries of the mystical ginseng root.
In the Orient, where ginseng was first used thousands of years ago, the root is believed to be endowed with potent, almost magical powers. Believers think that the root, dried and consumed in tea, can act as an aphrodisiac, ease stomach cramps, relieve back pain and cure a host of other maladies.
Fazenbaker, 44, who collected ginseng as child and is now one of three licensed dealers in Maryland, is one of those believers.
"I think there is more to it than what most medical people would say, although I don't have a lot to base that on," he said. "I just believe from talking to Korean and Chinese people. They can't be all wrong."
The best ginseng grows wild, and the Appalachian hills are the source of some of the world's most potent roots, said Fazenbaker, who works as an assistant superintendent at Greenbriar State Park in Frederick County.
Used largely in the Far East, ginseng is as much a part of American folklore as Daniel Boone, who harvested and exported the herb in the 1700s, said S. Ronald Singer, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
U.S. consumers use about 10 percent of the root harvested in this country, and the rest is exported, he said.
The North American variety, cousin to Oriental ginseng (same genus, different family), was discovered in the early 1700s by a Jesuit priest who had been transferred here from Asia, Singer said.
Ginseng once thrived along most of the Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Alabama and grew as far west and north as Michigan and Canada, he said. But overharvesting depleted the species.
In the mid-1970s, American ginseng was added to a worldwide list of endangered plants, and its harvesting and export fell under state and federal regulation, Singer said.
Today, 16 states issue licenses to export ginseng. Wisconsin leads in the sale of cultivated root, exporting 450,000 last year, followed by Vermont and Tennessee. West Virginia led in the export of wild root with a harvest of 72,000 pounds, followed by Kentucky. Maryland exported 109 pounds of wild ginseng last year.
In all, the United States shipped overseas 500,000 pounds of cultivated root and 190,000 pounds of wild root in 1984, most of it to China, Taiwan and Korea, Singer said.
The ginseng harvesting season in Maryland runs from August to December. This year 178 gatherers each paid $2 for diggers' licenses -- compared with a peak of 212 in 1981, said Robert C. Wood, who supervises the state licensing program.
In the hills of Western Maryland, generations of families have foraged and sold ginseng, which is commonly referred to there as " 'sang."
"My ancestors used to call this area the ' 'sanging ground,' " said John E. Hinebaugh, 65, who runs a country store in Sang Run, Md., a small town in Garrett County about three miles from the West Virginia border.
Hinebaugh, a licensed dealer, said his great-great-great-grandfather, John Friend Sr., settled the area in 1766.
"Since that time, down through the generations, my family has always bought and hunted ginseng," he said.
In the early days, ginseng grew in such abundance that they named a nearby hill "Ginseng Mountain," he said: "My ancestors used to haul ginseng and dried buffalo meat by packhorse."
Ginseng was one of the major colonial exports. In 1769, Friend opened a trading post, which Hinebaugh's great-grandfather converted to a general store in 1850. Today, the family business, a local landmark known as Friend's Store, still has a sign outside announcing "Ginseng Bought and Sold Here."
Fazenbaker, who grew up near the town of Lonaconing, Md., in Allegany County, started collecting as a boy. "We'd just hunt it in the mountains when we had time or when we were off from school," he said. "It was one of the ways we had to make extra spending money. At that time it was bringing $25 to $30 a pound."
While his three sons, now in their 20s, were growing up, Fazenbaker passed on the tradition, combining 'sanging forays with hunting and camping trips.
Wild Appalachian root now fetches up to $180 a pound, compared with $50 a pound for cultivated root, but the market is down this year, largely because of the strong U.S. dollar and an international ginseng glut, Fazenbaker said.
"People who do this are usually woods-wise, but it's really a hobby more than anything else. You can't imagine how much a pound of ginseng represents in time or footprints in the woods. If you get a couple pounds a year, you're doing good," he said.
Harvesting ginseng is as much a folk art as wood carving, and most 'sangers are secretive about their trade.
"There is a knack to it," said Hinebaugh. "About every digger has his own techniques, and you just rarely find two alike."
There are, however, a few rules of thumb for successful foraging, Fazenbaker said.
Since ginseng needs at least 60 percent shade to grow, it is most often found on north-facing slopes. It rarely grows in laurel or pine thickets; better to look in tall stands of oak, hickory, maple or tulip poplar, he said.
Ginseng, a perennial plant, takes 18 months to germinate. The first year it will have only a one-leaf cluster, which eventually grows to five leaves.
Under state law, only mature plants, with five-leaf clusters and red berries, can be harvested. Good harvesting roots are anywhere from 10 to 40 years old, and usually it takes 150 dried roots to make a pound, Fazenbaker said.
Depending on their age and growing conditions, wild roots often look like human or animal shapes, which greatly increase their value among superstitious users, he said.
The roots, which have a bitter, musty taste, are brewed into tea or used to flavor wine or vodka. Ginseng also is used in cosmetic creams and health foods, said Fazenbaker, who regularly drinks ginseng tea.
Although its medicinal value has always been doubted, researchers at the University of Maryland recently reported that the chemical constituents of ginseng may help combat senility and other symptoms of old age.
Similar studies elsewhere, including Germany and the Soviet Union, have produced similar although still inconclusive results in tests on elderly patients, researchers said.
"You name it, it's supposed to do it," said Fazenbaker. "Those who believe in it say it's a cure-all for everything."