Ginseng-hunting Season

September 27, 2012
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This month’s Adirondack Life magazine includes an article celebrating the ginseng tradition of the northeastern mountains. That’s right: the plant perhaps best known in America as a Chinese herb or a southern wild medicinal plant has, for millions of years, grown wild up all the way into Canada. The article features Bob Beyfuss, expert ginsenger and champion of “simulated-wild” ginseng, an approach that gives the plant space to grow in the forest without use of chemicals or the intensive methods of ginseng farming. He is also a presence in my book Ginseng, the Divine Root, which Algonquin Books has released as an e-book. Today’s post is adapted from the book.

Bob Beyfuss says the tattoo on his arm was a midlife crisis: a full-color, life-size illustration of a huge five-prong ginseng plant, from leaves to root. Ginseng diggers everywhere talk about prongs – the bracts that branch off from the main stem and give a rough idea of the plant’s age. One-prongs are a year old, two-prongs are two years, and a four-prong generally signals a plant four years old or older. After four years, a plant rarely adds prongs, so to tell the age you have to dig up the root and count the scars that gather on its neck, one every year. Beyfuss had a botanical illustrator paint the image from one of his own plants, a nine-year-old. Then a tattoo artist needed most of a day to transfer the illustration to Beyfuss’ arm. There it is: a flush of leaves on his shoulder in rich greens, the red berries full, and the brown, branchy root only slightly smaller than it should have been.
    Beyfuss has been involved with ginseng for nearly 30 years, starting at a low point in his life. In 1984 his marriage had just ended and he was going back to school for a master’s degree, and he felt old among the other graduate students. He was commuting two hours each way from his day job in Greene County. With the added strain of studying, he was a wreck.
    He started taking ginseng, chewing a bit of root daily, and found that despite getting less sleep, he could keep going through a full schedule of work, study, and almost-daily racquetball games. Ginseng seemed to cut his stress load, improve his energy, and, he thought, help him to lose weight.
    Beyfuss hoped that with simulated-wild ginseng, he could help revive a New York tradition in which families supplemented their income with native species from local forests in ways more ecologically sound than conventional dairy farms, which invest a great deal of energy, resources and antibiotics to grow animals that are not well-suited to these hill slopes.
    One September day we were in the Catskills where he likes to hunt the plant. Suddenly, standing amid stinging nettle and blackberry prickers, he knelt down. There it was. “Four prong,” he said.
    This was the first ginseng of the season. It was indeed a four-prong, with several clusters of leaves off the central stem – a good-sized buck in ginseng terms – but it did not stand out from the shrubs and the jack-in-the-pulpits nearby. Yet we were in a ginseng patch.
    “The more you look, the more you see,” Beyfuss said. Almost immediately, he pointed out another, just a bare stem. Although deer had nibbled off the leaves (deer and wild turkey love ginseng), Beyfuss could identify the plant by its central stem and the remaining bracts.
    He has hunted American ginseng throughout its range, which at one point stretched to the eastern edge of Nebraska and down into Florida. As you go south through the plant’s native range, down the Alleghenies through the Appalachians to Georgia, the indicator plants that signal its presence change. Blue cohosh gives way to black cohosh. Galax springs up.
    Pressed to explain ginseng’s allure, words fail him. He can’t articulate the feeling he gets from hunting shang, except to say that it “reinforces the primeval connection between humans and plants.”
    Later we crossed the road and re-entered the everyday world, stopping in a driveway to retrieve a fertilizer spreader for his friend. You could tell, as Beyfuss settled into the car, that the rest of the day would be routine after the magic of the first hunt of the season.

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