A most coveted root
Growing in narrow, deep gorges and shady, dappled hardwood forests, ginseng has been harvested and traded for millennia. In one speculation, ginseng's first appearance as a coveted trade commodity is found in Ezekiel 27:17 The Israel marketplace traded in honey, oil, balm and "pannag" -- a derivation of the latin binomial for ginseng -- Panax. The Chinese, however, were the first to document and champion its invigorating and regenerating qualities. Pharmacopeias from as early 2nd Centuy CE in China extoll the virtues of ginseng as a great cure-all.
Eager to collect ginseng, the Chinese would buy Russian and Manchurian ginseng from the Russian Far East at a price of twenty times oriental silver or gold. In the 1600s, the Korean Emperor and other officials employed ginseng hunters, called the va-pang suis, to hunt for ginseng in China. The mission was rife with dangers. The White Swans were a band of thieves that would wait for the hunters to steal their stash and torture and kill them for the knowledge of where the root grew. The va-pang suis competed with panthers and tigers of the mountains who also hunted the root. Stories of ginseng emitting a phosphorescent glow in the moonlight are plenty in the dramas of Korean hunter gatherers. They would shoot their arrows towards curious glows in the woods at night, and retrieve them in the morning to find a rich supply of wild ginseng.
Today, South Korea is the largest distributor of ginseng and ginseng products. They cultivate only Panax ginseng, where it grows so abundantly there that Korea’s domestic consumption of the root is greater than their exports. However, there still exists a culture of foraging for wild ginseng. The shimmani (mountain ginseng person) are a group of stealthy forest foragers who practice within the tradition of the va-pang-suis. Though foraging wild ginseng in Korea is illegal due to overharvesting and the threat of extinction, the shimmani continue to hunt and gather in secret. The wild variety can reach up to $100,000 a root depending on its age and for an amateur or seasoned hunter, one root can support an entire lifetime. Their trips are often imbued with a spiritual hue, offerings to the mountain sprits and abstaining from sex and meat are essential to the ritual. The wild variety is considered more elastic and older than the cultivated variety (locals claim they are at least 200-300 years old). As one may imagine, resentment and envy envelop the shimmani community. For those who are lucky enough to strike gold, thieving and deceit are a part of the gamble.
Asia isn’t the only continent where ginseng grows abundantly. In the Appalachian Mountains, ginseng grows on forest floors. But more than 95% of this American variety, Panax quinquefolius, harvested today are exported to China. This trade began in 1784, when the US sailed to China with 3,300 pounds of dried ginseng or “green gold” in exchange for tea and porcelain. During the latter half of the 19th century, mountain dwellers would harvest the plant, often while on hunting trips, and sell the roots to regional dealers or factories to be prepared for export to China. Today China imports 2 to 4 tons of dried ginseng root annually from West Virginia alone.
However, an impending trade war between China and the US is making the future of ginseng trade a little murky. Due to the high tariffs on steel and aluminum imposed by Trump, China is responding by placing a tax on American goods, which would include a 15 percent tax on Appalachian ginseng. This tax is particularly worrisome to ginseng farmers whose livelihood depend on the Chinese buying their supply. Interestingly enough, the areas where many of these farms thrive are the same areas that drew out strong support during Trump’s campaign trail.
Today, many ginseng farms in the US use wild simulated ginseng agriculture, where a cultivated variety of ginseng will be planted in the wild to mimic the growing conditions of native ginseng, usually on a sun dappled floor of a hardwood forest, under a canopy of trees. Below is my personal favorite purveyor of ginseng products. Their standardized extract contains 14% ginsenoside content, which are the energizing and stimulating properties of ginseng. Typically, standard extracts will run 4-7% and if an extract does not bother putting the ginsenoside content, don’t bother buying it! Harding’s Mountain Wild Herbs will even give you a statement of analysis from the potency testing!