Around 5,000 years ago, a root was discovered in the mountains of northern China that was believed to strengthen the soul, invigorate the body and prolong the life. It was so cherished by Chinese emperors, that they were willing to pay for the root with its weight in gold. Chinese demand for this root encouraged a flourishing industry of trade and export in the region, that would eventually cause the virtual extinction of the plant in Asia.
This root, which we know as ginseng, grows wild throughout the southern Appalachian region. The ancient healer, which craves shade, is especially plentiful in the heavily forested hills of West Virginia, and continues to carry a high value. We are now in the heart of ginseng harvesting season, which by legal definition runs from September 1 to November 30, and many West Virginians are heading to the hills to uncover the treasure that is buried beneath them.
Appalachians have been hunting and selling ginseng for over 200 years as a way to earn extra cash when times are hard. The practice, which is commonly referred to as "senging," has traditionally surged when coal miners were on strike and when unemployment rates were high. During the nineteenth century, entire families would head to the hills in search of ginseng. Dollar for pound, ginseng is probably one the most valuable renewable natural resources in Appalachia.
A pound of dried ginseng can sell for up to $500, and sales of the root can serve as a significant source of extra income for West Virginians. The older the plant, the more valuable it is. Though ginseng can be cultivated, the wild form is what buyers are really after. "Stress rings" are what give the root its market value, and are nearly impossible to cultivate. The rings, which are visible to the trained eye, are formed as the root pushes through soil just compact enough to provide the right resistance. The ancient, nutrient-rich soil of West Virginia provides the perfect environment for this process.
Due to the high demand for ginseng in recent years, and its long maturation period, it is becoming increasingly hard to find. Even though it grows well in West Virginia, it takes a skilled and experienced hunter to find it, and prime hunting areas are often well guarded secrets. The root, which resembles many other forest plants, must be dug with great caution so that it is not damaged. West Virginians are able to hunt and dig ginseng with the knowledge and skill that comes from centuries of interaction with the elusive plant. Strategies on hunting the root are passed down from generation to generation, and Appalachians take pride in their abilities and their finds.
Harvesting ginseng has become a recognized and standardized industry here in West Virginia, and there is no doubting its economic significance. What is most important to understand, however, is that for many of the people who live here -- the ones whose ancestors have inhabited these hills for generations -- "senging" is a way of life. It is a vibrant cultural tradition that reminds us of the strong ties that exist between rural Appalachians and their mountains and hollers. It shows us how incredibly capable Mountaineers were at adapting to their difficult mountainous topography. It is amazing to me that even after years of oppression, years of being bought out of their lands and watching its destruction, that many rural Appalachians have not lost the intimate relationship with their environment that their ancestors once had. Ginseng hunting is a practice that is unique to the true and rightful owners of these West Virginia mountains, though their names rarely appear on the deeds.