Real-life ginseng hunts are more satisfaction than reality show drama

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Oct. 14, 2014.

If you watch reality shows like the History Channel’s “Appalachian Outlaws” or the National Geographic Channel’s “Smokey Mountain Money,” you know hunting ginseng is a dangerous business of greed and guns.

But if you’ve ever gone into the woods looking for this elusive medicinal root, you know those shows are laughably over-hyped and about as far from “reality” as you can get.

Ernie Burdette, 52, of Cedar Grove, has been hunting ginseng for 12 years.

He’s never been threatened by a rival ginsenger. The people he meets in the woods are more likely to stop for a chat than shoot at him.

Burdette did walk into a backwoods marijuana patch one time, but the grower had already harvested the crop. He turned around and high-tailed it out of there just to be safe.

The only real dangers he has encountered came from rattlesnakes, which he easily escaped by giving them plenty of space, and a few yellow jacket nests, which he did not manage to avoid.

Most of the time, however, hunting ginseng is as peaceful as a walk in the woods. Because that’s exactly what it is.

Burdette set out before sunrise last Saturday morning, bouncing his Toyota pickup through a secluded hollow in eastern Kanawha County.

This is how he spends most weekends once ginseng season opens on Sept. 1.

“I look for ginseng season like some people look for deer season,” he said.

He pulled the truck into a clearing and stepped out. Dressed in a camouflage sweatshirt, blue jeans and hiking boots, the only weapons Burdette carries into the woods are his walking stick (fashioned from an old shovel handle) and a small hoe he wears on his belt.

He picked a spot on the hillside, dug his walking stick into the dirt and hoisted himself up.

The hunt had begun.

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Ginseng has been prized for its medicinal qualities for thousands of years, and was used by both American Indians and ancient Chinese cultures.

Although they are from the same family of plants, American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is not the same as Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), and the plants are used to treat different conditions.

Asian ginseng has been used to treat everything from depression, anxiety, cystic fibrosis, certain kinds of cancer, anemia, diabetes, asthma and certain kinds of sexual disorders.

American ginseng, meanwhile, is most often used to treat stress and boost the immune system. It also is used as a stimulant, appearing in many energy drinks.

The United States began exporting its ginseng to Asia beginning in the 17th century.

Robin Black of the West Virginia Division of Forestry said West Virginians have a long history of ginseng hunting.

The plant can be found in all 55 counties, although most of the ginseng harvested has come from the southern part of the state.

Black said, historically, ginseng harvests have increased whenever coal miners went on strike or the coal business declined.

“They would basically use it for their Christmas, to have Christmas and feed their families while the strikes were going on,” she said. “That’s heritage. That’s part of their tradition.”

According to the Division of Forestry data, wild ginseng harvests statewide increased from 22,176 pounds in 1981 to 39,200 pounds just three years later, when coal mine strikes had left thousands of workers in southern West Virginia without jobs.

The state currently is in the middle of another ginseng boom, although Black said it has little to do with coal mining.

“What I see are people who want to make a quick buck after seeing the shows,” she said.

She is referring to the aforementioned reality TV shows “Appalachian Outlaws” and “Smokey Mountain Money,” which make ginseng hunting look more like the illegal drug trade than a peaceful mountain tradition.

Black is not a fan.

“They’re pitting people against each other to see how much ginseng they can dig,” she said.

Black said those shows have inspired lots of people to go into the woods looking for ginseng. And just like their television heroes, many of them are breaking the law.

“We’ve had a lot of poaching done this year. People that were growing it or had ginseng on their own property, (poachers) came in and stole the ginseng, either before season or after the season started, with no permission to be on the property,” she said.

The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources last month seized 190 pounds of illegally-harvested ginseng, the largest bust in the agency’s history.

Black said the Division of Forestry has ramped up its efforts to fight ginseng poaching. They are reviewing buying reports from September to see if dealers might have purchased any illegally-harvested roots.

She said the poaching could have a negative effect on West Virginia’s wild ginseng crop, since illegal diggers often grab plants before they’ve had a chance to spread their seeds.

The boom has also had a negative effect on ginseng sales.

“From what I’ve heard, it’s going down because of the over-harvest. There’s too much out there. There’s not enough demand,” she said. “When the demand’s not there, you’re not going to get the larger prices.”

Last year, the average price for a pound of dried ginseng was $780.

“People thought it was going to start at that this year,” Black said.

Now, because of the overabundance of ginseng, the price is hovering around $500.

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Luckily, Burdette is not motivated by the cash.

“If you’re doing it for the money, you’re doing it for the wrong reason,” he said.

It takes about 200 dried plants to make a pound, about as much as a plastic grocery bag would hold.

He said when you consider how much hunting and digging that requires, there are far better ways to make a living.

For Burdette, it’s about the thrill of the hunt.

“You’re always waiting on that big patch. It’s like fishing. You’re always looking for the big one.”

Burdette started ginsenging about 12 years ago under the tutelage of his brother-in-law.

He already was an accomplished outdoorsman — even moving to Minnesota for a time, just for the fishing — but had never learned to identify the plants. His brother-in-law took him into the woods and helped him spot some ginseng.

Burdette was instantly hooked. That night, he dreamed of the plant’s five-pointed prongs.

“All night long, in my mind’s eye, I saw ginseng.”

He has gotten better over the years, but ginsenging is a hobby that no one ever masters.

Sometimes Burdette can spot a plant from 60 feet away. Other times, he might step on the ginseng before he sees it.

“Even somebody that’s experienced, you can still walk on by. We could’ve walked past 100 already. Who knows?” he said.

On Saturday, Burdette spotted five plants during his two hours on the mountain.

Three were too small to pick, with only two prongs of leaves poking out of the ground.

State law forbids harvesting ginseng younger than five years old. The easiest way to tell a plant’s age is by the leaves: a five-year-old plant should have three stems, with five leaves on each prong.

Before continuing on his hunt, Burdette leaned over to pluck the leaves off these immature plants. This prevents less ethical ginsengers from finding the plants and digging them illegally.

A little later he spotted a three-prong plant from about 25 feet away.

Burdette pulled his hoe from its holster and, bending at his waist, tore into the black dirt.

His first swing didn’t unearth the ginseng root, so he chopped at the ground again. And again. And again.

The root never appeared.

This is how it goes, he said. Sometimes the leaves are there, plain as day, but you never find the ginseng’s root, no matter how long you dig.

“They become ghosts,” he said.

Disappointed, he stood and slid the hoe back onto his belt.

“All right, you can have that one,” Burdette said, to no one in particular.

On a good day, Burdette might dig 30 or 40 roots. Once, while ginsenging near Bluefield, he stepped into a whole patch of ginseng.

“I dug 40-some plants. I had on cargo pants and both sides were stuffed full,” he said.

Most days, he finds about 10 or 20 roots.

On this particular Saturday, his efforts yielded only one six-inch-long root.

He found the plant growing beside a log, under a thick tangle of brush. Burdette plunged his walking stick in the ground and ducked beneath the branches.

After a few slashes with his hoe, he pulled out what looked like a small brown stick, covered in tiny ridges.

If this were a television show, there would probably be some dramatic banjo music playing in the background.

Or maybe a rival band of ginsengers would burst through the trees, ready to steal this sliver of “green gold.”

Instead, Burdette washes the root with a trickle from his water bottle. He inspects it for a moment and drops it into his waist pack.

Then he continues on his hunt.