WEST AUGUSTA, VA. -- Prices are up, wages are down and it sounds like nothing but trouble in the Middle East. With things going from bad to worse, who could be surprised that ginseng poaching is on the rise?

No one here in the mountains of western Virginia, where the trend has been apparent for months. Legal and illegal hunting of ginseng -- the bitter root coveted for its legendary recuperative and aphrodisiac powers -- is thriving like rarely before.

The main reason, according to hunters and state officials, is the nation's weakening economy.

As layoff notices are issued and work hours trimmed, the small brown root growing in the wooded hillsides -- and recently bringing $220 a pound from export dealers -- is looking better all the time. Let the debate continue over whether ginseng can actually calm the nerves or heighten libido; no one disputes that the money is real.

"If it wasn't for this ginseng, I'd be in bad shape," said Mike Hiner, 34, a Waynesboro, Va., construction worker who has suffered as the building industry has hit the skids.

"Whenever the economy goes down, we see more people getting involved in hunting and digging ginseng," said Marshall Trammell, chief of Virginia's Office of Plant Protection.

Most hunters are following the laws governing the harvest of the rare root, but a rising number are not. There have been about 50 arrests or citations statewide this year for digging ginseng out of season, in Shenandoah National Park or on other protected federal land, or on private property without permission, Trammell said.

That's almost 70 percent higher than the year before, he said, adding that the illegal digging is contributing to a growing scarcity that someday may cause the root to be named an endangered species -- making all wild ginseng off-limits to digging and ending a part of mountain culture that has lasted two centuries.

In West Augusta, where Guy Hamilton and his sister, Jackie Daniels, are among the largest ginseng dealers in the state, it's not always possible to identify the legal roots from the ill-gotten.

The family has run its ginseng operation on farmland near the Calfpasture River since before World War I, and is cited by state officials for its honest reputation. But Daniels said that when hunters come in to sell their roots, they're in no mood for interrogations.

"They don't like to talk, and they want to deal in cash," said Daniels, 73. "Our business is to buy and sell it. We can't get involved in someone else's problem."

The Hamilton family business is the first link in an economy that leads from Virginia's back country to the docks of Hong Kong and the homes of the Chinese, who import about 90 percent of the world's ginseng. People usually chew the root or use it in tea.

The product also has been gaining in domestic popularity and is a favorite at organic food stores. Cultivated ginseng is a growing industry, but purists insist on the real thing: the wild stuff that grows in Virginia's mountainous regions. "It's the difference between polyester and cashmere wool," Daniels said.

Virginia's legal ginseng digging season runs from Aug. 15 to the end of the year. As a practical matter, little hunting goes on after the first frost because the plant's leaves fall off. Penalties for illegal digging range from small fines for first-time violators to jail time for recidivists.

Last year, Virginia inspectors certified 8,400 pounds of ginseng for export from 63 licensed dealers, Trammell said.

Digging seasons, licenses, state inspectors -- they're all anathema to the true spirt of ginseng digging, a Virginia custom dating to the 1700s. And relations between Virginia's ginseng industry and government regulators are tinged by resentment on both sides, "like a moonshiner around a revenue agent," Daniels said jokingly.

Trammell said Virginia was not eager to take on the regulation of ginseng, but was forced to after after the federal government said in 1978 that all states that wanted to export had to have inspection programs to ensure that the plant was not being harvested to excess.

Ginseng dealers, likewise, are grateful that they can export their product but chafe under the paperwork the government requires.

And some hunters, many of whom come from families where the art of ginseng hunting has been handed down for generations, don't appreciate being told when and where they can dig.

"It's a way of life for a lot of people," said Gene Parker, a ranger along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Lynchburg who occasionally arrests people for ginseng hunting. "It's typical of Appalachian mountain culture."

But these days, many ginseng hunters don't fit the typical mold. Hiner, the construction worker, said he picked it up about eight years ago and enjoys it largely for the chance to get some exercise and enjoy the woods.

Only lately has the money become more important. A small bag of the stuff he picked recently brought him $235 from Hamilton and Daniels last week. Fred Whitt, a barber from depressed southwestern Virginia, came in with a patch worth $646.

Like many in Virginia's ginseng industry, the 83-year-old Hamilton, who has been dealing ginseng for more than 60 years, is a cynic about his trade. He's happy to make a living from the root but doubts there's much validity to its celebrated health properties.

"Try some," he said with a smile, offering a piece of ginseng. "They say it calms the stomach."

Actually, it did something close to the opposite. Chewing the intensely bitter root is evidently an acquired taste.

Still, a smattering of scientific opinion is building -- tentatively -- that there may just be something to ginseng's reputation as a medicinal aid and life-enhancer, experts say.

"There's some indication that ginseng has compounds with beneficial health effects," said C.R. Roberts, a horticulturist at the University of Kentucky. "The Chinese have used it for centuries and centuries, and there may be some truth in it."

An herb, or its roots, used as a drug in China and other Asian countries, as a stimulating tea and to make aromatic bitters. The generic name "panax" derives from the same Greek root as "panacea."

The Chinese have always considered ginseng a cure for many ills and as an aphrodisiac, particularly those specimens resembling the male form. It is considered by some to be a painkiller and to have properties that increase resistance to stress and disease. It is believed to aid the central nervous system. No definitive scientific evidence has proved this.

Wild ginseng grows in shady, well-drained areas such as mountain slopes. Each plant has three to five green leaves and green berries that turn red when ripe.

Ginseng requires five to seven years to mature from seed. It has been cultivated in America since 1870 and in Korea since ancient times. Wild ginseng, which generally is more expensive than the cultivated root, was first exported from America to the Orient in the early 1700s.

Ginseng is graded on such criteria as source, shape, color, taste, texture and markings.

Wild ginseng is one of the United States' major medicinal plant exports, producing $50 million a year in sales, mostly to China. Wisconsin is the principal producer.

Because of the scarcity of wild ginseng, gathering of the plant is regulated by federal and state law. Ginseng used in the United States usually is of the cultivated variety and is imported from China. It can be found in a variety of products, including skin creams, hair tonics and food. SOURCES: Encyclopedia Americana, Encyclopedia Britannica.