Larry Harding has grown American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius, Araliaceae) for over 45 years. Harding's Ginseng Farm, located in Friendsville, Maryland, in the Appalachian Mountains, has over 70 acres of wild simulated ginseng (ginseng grown in an environment designed to simulate conditions of the wild environment). Harding's ginseng originated from harvested wild roots and seeds the Harding family collected up to 50 years ago. When it comes to ginseng, Harding has just about seen it all. So in the fall of 2007, when recreational harvester Roger Welch brought him a wild ginseng root that weighed just under a pound (lb), Harding wasn't too surprised, but confessed it was quite unique. "Most ginseng roots are a fraction of an ounce," said Harding (oral communication, November 6, 2007). "Normally there are 200-330 roots per dry [wild] lb."
According to Robert L. Beyfuss, American ginseng specialist for Cornell University Cooperative Extension, properly dried ginseng roots (of all types) weigh about one third of their original weight.1 Welch had just started drying the root when Harding saw it; the drying process normally takes 8 to 10 days. Though the root had lost a little weight, this didn't significantly affect its value. In September 2007 wild ginseng was sell-ing for $400-500 per dry lb.2 As of November 2007, according to Harding, it was selling for over $800 per dry lb, and he equates hunting it to "digging for gold." Beyfuss attributed the jump in prices to the unprecedented drought in most of Appalachia that caused most plants to mature sometime in July before the season opened (e-mail, November 15, 2007). Beyfuss also added, "There is no surplus ginseng in the pipeline left over from last year and the domestic market, particularly Koreans, wanting fresh root is very strong."
Welch, a Maryland native, has been hunting ginseng for 47 years. He retired 6 years ago from a job at a paper company and said the money in ginseng is fairly good (oral communication, November 9, 2007). Yet when he found what he calls a "12-pronger" in Western Maryland, he didn't know what he had. "It was raining and muddy. There were a couple of tops so I thought it was several roots all clumped together," said Welch. "I even stopped and showed it to a couple of my buddies-telling them it was one root-and I thought I was fooling them. Turns out I wasn't!" According to Beyfuss, ginseng plants usually have from 2 to 4 palmately compound leaves which are often called prongs (e-mail, November 9, 2007). Mature ginseng plants usually have 3 prongs, very vigorous plants may have 4 prongs, 5-prong plants are very rare, and a 12-prong plant is "phenomenal."
When Welch was able to remove the mud, he saw it was indeed one piece. He chose Harding to appraise the root because his farm was only 25 miles away and Harding is somewhat of a local ginseng expert (e-mail, November 15, 2007). "I didn't know Larry previously, but he buys and sells a lot of ginseng and has been doing it for a long while," Welch said. Later Welch returned to the same area in western Maryland to see if he could find another large root but could not. Welch said the roots he usually finds are hardly over 30 years old, and the average root a ginseng hunter finds and keeps is between 5 and 10 years old because ginseng has to be at least 5-years-old to be legally harvested. Welch estimated that this root was anywhere from 50 to 100 years old.
The roots Harding sees are 5 to 30 years old and seldom over 50. Harding estimated that Welch's root, because of its size and age rings, was around 100 years old. However, according to Beyfuss, ginseng roots can be roughly determined by counting the numbers of abscission scars on the rhizome and not necessarily the age rings (e-mail, November 9, 2007). He said this particular root was hard to gauge due to the fact that it had multiple tops, and it is easier to determine the age of a root with a single rhizome and one stem. He estimated that this root could be 100 years old, but was most likely closer to 50.
Harding was only aware of one case with roots over 100 years old. In 2005, the Yonhap news agency of Korea reported that a set of 6 ginseng roots, including specimens up to 110 years old, sold at an auction for $120,000 to two brothers who wanted to help treat their mother's ailing knees.3 Harding added that, since a ginseng's medicinal value increases with age, this root could be worth $1,000 or more to someone interested in its medicinal properties, though one might also want it for sentimental reasons. However, Harding did not buy the coveted root himself. "It's not worth over $1000 to me," said Harding. "It doesn't have sentimental value to me, but to someone else it could be worth a lot."
It certainly has sentimental value to Welch, who traditionally gives his ginseng money to his wife as a Christmas gift. "I've given her about $5,000 this year-she's pretty happy," said Welch (oral communication, November 9, 2007). This, however, didn't include money for the 12-prong root. Even with offers from $1,200-$1,500, Welch said he isn't selling. Instead he intends to give it to a museum like the Smithsonian, or some other institution that would display it and keep it intact.
"The Smithsonian's not too far from me, and if I wanted to see my root, I'd be able to," said Welch. "I took that out of the ground without breaking one limb. I'd like to put it in a place where it won't be used."
- Beyfuss R. Economics and marketing of ginseng. Agroforestry Notes Forest Farming-4. July 1999;15:1-4.
- Moses S. Kitzmiller man digs up enormous ginseng root. Cumberland Times-News. September 9, 2007. Available at http://www.times-news.com/archivesearch/ local_story_252004801.html. Accessed September 11, 2007.
- Wild ginseng roots sell for 125 million won. Yonhap news agency. November 28, 2005;17:51.