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Arts & Culture

Appalachian Ginseng Opened Trade With The World

A close up of the most famous medicinal plant ginseng (Panax gin
IgorCheri
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Adobe Stock
Ginseng growing in the wild.

Luke Manget, an assistant professor of history at Dalton State College in Dalton, Georgia, dug through community store records to gain insight into the wild herb trade in America, especially looking at ginseng and its connection to Asia.

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Manget spoke with Eric Douglas recently about his new book “Ginseng Diggers: A History of Root and Herb Gathering in Appalachia.”

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Douglas: Give me the 30 second primer on ginseng.

Manget: Ginseng is a deciduous perennial herbaceous plant that grows about 18 inches high and grows pretty prolifically in the mountains. Since the early 18th century, it has been in high demand in East Asia and particularly China. The Chinese have used Asian ginseng for thousands of years as a panacea. I mean, it was the most important medicinal herb in their pharmacopeia. Early in the 18th century, Jesuits working in Canada and China discovered that American ginseng was close enough to Asian ginseng that it could be substituted in the markets and East Asia. And so it started this trade that funneled Appalachian or North American ginseng to the markets in Asia. It was driven entirely by demand from East Asia and China.

Douglas: In the early 1800s, you’ve got people who've barely heard of China, are digging up ginseng and sending the crops to China, and making a living off of it or supplementing their income anyway.

Manget: And, in fact, ginseng from West Virginia helped open up trade relationships between the United States and China in 1784. This was right after the American Revolution. And people were moving into the region moving across the Ohio River, moving into the Ohio valley. And in 1784, a group of financiers outfitted this ship called the Emperor of China and it was going to be the first contact made directly between the United States and China. There are a lot of consumers over there; we were trying to figure out how to break into the market. They didn’t really want much of what the Americans produced, but they wanted ginseng. And so we loaded it down with 100,000 pounds of mostly Pennsylvania and Western Virginia ginseng and established a trade relationship with them.

Douglas: I guess the local settlers are taking it to the community store and trading it. And then the community stores are collecting it and sending it to Baltimore or New York?

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Courtesy Photo
Author Luke Manget, a history professor, poses with ginseng.

Manget: Initially, there were itinerant merchants who traveled around hauling wagon loads of goods bartering for whatever they could get. Some of the first ones to come into the region would just send out word that they were going to come through with their wagon loads of goods. And people would bring them ginseng, skins and furs and some of the other stuff. I’m sure these merchants would have preferred, you know hard cash and gold and silver, but there just wasn’t a lot circulating. So they had to take whatever the locals could give them. And ginseng served as something of a currency in the early economy. Later on it became funneled to the country store, so the country merchants would open up these big stores, and advertise they would take in barter and then at the end of the year, they might have a merchant kind of come through from Baltimore buying up their ginseng.

Douglas: One of the things you’ve talked about in the book, is the concept of a community commons with gathering on community forest land. Can you explain that to me?

Manget: The story of root digging and herb gathering in Appalachia is essentially a story of the commons. These plants were not cultivated in private gardens, and after the 1830s 1840s, I mean, there’s no public domain left in the region. There’s no kind of public land, all of it’s owned by somebody, mostly in West Virginia, large land companies, absentee owners, speculators. So, it was all private property.

But on a local level, the locals treated the mountain sides primarily as something of a commons. And by that, I mean, it was widely expected that everyone in the community would have access to these forest and mountain sides. It was like a de facto public domain. Members of the community pretty much assume that any plant they found growing wild, that wasn’t planted by someone’s labor, right, that was the property of whoever found it, the harvester rather than the property of the landowner on whose land it was found. By the Civil War, it was a pretty established custom, although it was always subject to some sort of negotiations. After the Civil War, there was more pressure on the commons and it kind of changed the dynamics a little bit there. Now, of course, you can’t just assume that you can take them from people's property, so it’s shifted along the way, but back in the 19th century, the commons was a pretty powerful institution.

Douglas: Which brings me to my next question. Where does ginseng farming stand today? Is it still a money making enterprise? 

Manget: The cultivation of ginseng really ramps up around the 1890s. By this first or second decade of the 20th century, there’s kind of this craze for ginseng cultivation. And it was a big thing back then, and kind of subsided over time for a variety of reasons. Over the last 30 or 40 years, it’s definitely become more important in certain places. Wisconsin, I think, leads the country in ginseng cultivation. There’s a lot of bigger farms up there. In Appalachia, there are people that have the big patches of ginseng. Although most of them they’re doing what’s called forest farming and they’re growing wild ginseng. So they’re essentially growing it in the forest. And it doesn’t look like a garden, but they’re growing it in their woods and they got a big patch going. And it’s definitely their private patch. It’s definitely cultivated in some form.

Douglas:  The markets are still there, though. There’s still a demand from Asia for ginseng root. And it’s still a moneymaker?

Manget: It’s still a money maker. There’s less of it than there used to be. And there’s more regulations now. In parts of western North Carolina, it’s declining and the Forest Service has actually prohibited digging for the last couple of years on forest service land in North Carolina just to let it rebound. So it’s a little harder to find, but it gets anywhere from $600 to $1,000 a pound now. So it’s still pretty lucrative if you can find it and dig it legally.

Luke Manget, author of “Ginseng Diggers: A History of Root and Herb Gathering in Appalachia.” is an assistant professor of history at Dalton State College in Dalton, Georgia.


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