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Friday, September 3, 2010

The oldest ginseng plant on earth...

this is the story of Renshen(chinese for man root)....

In the year 1781 the woods along the Little Miami River were a wonder. Here the steep hillsides cut by the melting of the last ice age were covered in a rich cove forest. A small unnamed creek spills from the flat woodland above the gorge of the river cascading in tiny foot high waterfalls down the hillside. Here under these mighty trees scattered among the bloodroot and goldenseal were yellowed leaves glowing in the fall sunshine. The yellow belonged to ginseng. Hundreds of plants ranging in age from just a year or two to close to a century dotted the rich slope of the cove.

Among the dried browns of the early fall woodland floor another yellow was present besides the golden ginseng. This yellow flitted along catching small insects. It was a small warbler feeding and fueling itself as it headed south during it's fall migration. A small green inchworm measured along the stem of a big four prong ginseng plant. The slight movement caught the eye of the warbler and in an instant it was at the base of the plant hopping and jumping at the little worm. Fluttering up catching the inchworm it dislodged some of the bright crimson berries barely holding on. A berry landed with a plop right at the small birds feet. Allmost without thinking the warbler gulped the seed down.

The next morning was cold and wet and windy. The lovely little bird spent the day resting and feeding nearby, taking a well deserved break from it's long journey. Late that evening the weather cleared and the sun came out. On a steep cliff small wasps gathered in the sunshine and drank from the wet soil of the cliff. The warbler flashed in catching a wasp and perched on a tiny rock outcropping devouring it's meal. Right before leaving it made a little room for the meal by depositing a dropping containing the ginseng seed on the steep cliffside.

Two days later another rain came washing the seed down the rocks into a small pocket in the rocks. There the seed sat all that winter and the next. The thick shell that protected the seed from being digested inside the bird meant that it took two years before the seed would sprout. Finally the next spring the seed sprouted and Renshen was born. A small plant Renshen was then just an inch or two high that year, looking like nothing more than a stray bean sprout from a salad. Renshen shared it's tiny pocket in the cliff with a small fern and some moss, there really wasn't room for more. Large trees hung out over the little cliff and the steep hillside shading Renshen. Alone on the cliff Renshen was safe from disease from nearby plants and safe from the digging of small animals. In its airy perch Renshen recieved even the slightest of breases even when the rest of the woods was still. This prevented any mold or fungus from bothering Renshen.

Slowly Renshen grew, the fern died of old age and rotted providing a tiny burst of compost into the tiny pocket. In 1793 Renshen was a small plant barely six inches high with two small prongs. In the rich woods thirty feet away a ginseng plant two years younger than Renshen was a hearty three prong a foot tall. That year Renshen produced two seeds that fell bouncing down the rock face to the forest floor below. In the year 1800 Renshen was still a small plant with a small root barely two inches long but finally a three prong while the big plant thirty feet away in the woods was dead. There Renshen sat barely growing at all, not even sprouting in 1808 during a very dry spring, just lying there dormant waiting.

In 1812 a mouse nested in a rotting log on the clifftop above Renshen. In july a grey fox smelled the strong scent of the mouse and began to dig at the rotten log. Small pieces of rotten wood began raining down the cliffside and several caught just right filling Renshens little hollow. That fall Renshen produced twenty seven seeds the most it would ever produce. The next spring Renshen turned thirty, each year marked by a tiny scar that built up one on top of the other as a little neck above the bulblike shape of the root. This was the first year the little neck of scars was longer than Renshens actual root. There were still older plants in the woods but not many. Though about a hundred yards away on another very steep spot grew several plants between fifty and a hundred years old.

There Renshen sat, year after year, decade after decade. In 1843 Renshen turned sixty and the woods rang for the first time with the loud whistle of a train down the hillside by the river. Renshen was then the oldest plant anywhere around as men had been for a while taking time off from the hard work of farming to spend an afternoon digging ginseng for some much needed extra money. Ginseng had been dug and traded with far a way china for over a centery even then.

Over the years the wooded hillsides around Renshen were selectively cut so that eventually even the trees in the forest were younger that Renshen. Protected in it's rocky perch, the hardy plant sat, not even sprouting in two hot springs right after the closest trees were cut. In 1883 Renshen turned a hundred and up along the neck of scars another tiny bulb of a root began to grow. In total with the three inches of neck and two root bulbs Renshen weighed allmost an ounce. That year a jack in the pulpit sprouted alongside Renshen in the crevice. The jack lived for a decade with Renshen on the cliffside before leaving Renshen alone again.

In 1983 the train whistle stopped as Renshen outlived even the railroad and the next year Renshen turned two hundred. Renshen was now the oldest ginseng plant in the world as the only ginseng plant older was bulldozed off a mountaintop in West Virginia in a coal mining operation.

It's now 2010 and Renshen lives on in it's rocky home, protected from man and beast and disease. Ginseng doesn't seem to die of old age, it takes something like a landslide or a man or a disease to kill one. Over ten inches of tiny age scars twist and contort in Renshens little pocket of soil. If Renshen was found and dug without being broken how much would it be worth? Old roots, ancient old roots over a century old have sold at auction with less than a dozen bringing hundreds of thousands. Renshen? The first million dollar ginseng root? Hopefully we never find out....

A three ounce fifty year old..


  1. eleuthero root
    Post interesting and thanks for sharing. Some things in here I have not thought about before. Thanks for doing the cool-down, which is really good written. I will refer more friends about this. This is one of the charismatic, informatics blog and a good book about life at most that have been described in the special features to help readers and visitors. All information found here is genuine and realistic.

  2. Beautiful story, I would love to see the plant.

  3. oh this story is real and not the only one like it. there are just a few legendary ginseng roots like this documented and not just disappearing to a private buyer never to be seen again. if you or anyone would like to hear them contact me. also if anyone wants to see what this legendary renshen root looks like contact me