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Monday, September 26, 2011

This and that ginseng

I'm constantly asked what does ginseng look like so I thought I'd post a little photo gallery of sang images



Some mature ginseng plants



Small ginseng too little to harvest



Ginseng thats turned yellow in the fall just before the top dies down. This is when ginseng is the easiest to find as you can sometimes spot it twenty feet away or in weeds where you would miss it green.


A small three prong starting to turn


A giant root that had two four prong tops


Some really old "trophy" ginseng plants

The thousand dollar woods


Lakes have names. Right there on the map for everyone to read. But woods almost never have names. So I end up giving names to the ones that mean something to me. Usually a woods gets named after a tree stand or a deer or something simple like that. A case of "you know I'm hunting out by the gas line" eventually morphs into just "the gas line" and the place has a name. A few might have that name stick for two or three people but that's about it. Most have names known only to me. There are another dozen or so woods that are an even closer kept secret, those "I'd tell ya but then I'd have to kill ya" woods because those are the ones that hold ginseng. Not tiny bits that you can find anywhere if you look hard enough in the right kind of places but real ginseng measured in half pounds or sometimes pounds dug in a day. With my terrible memory I keep them written in a notebook, not because I might forget them, but so I'll know when I've been there last. I try to stay out of each for several years so that I won't hurt the population too much. And the last few years I've ordered a pound of seed every year so soon I'll have more little ginseng coming on than I'll ever dig. That way my ginseng digging actually means there will be more sang in the woods in the long run.
I try to harvest enough every year to pay for christmas, usually about a pound of dried ginseng. Which at least in my neck of the woods is alot to dig year after year. I also try to add at least one decent woods every year to make up for those that are sold, logged off, or any of a dozen other things that can ruin a good woods. So every year while out fishing or mushroom hunting or picture taking I'll keep my eye out for a likely place. Then sometime in late summer I'll pack a lunch and give the place a good looking over. Down in the hollows or up in the liitle necks of woods that run up into cornfields. What usually happens is I'll find a big creek out fishing that runs away from the road, up into farm country and I'll start to wonder. Then I'll go home and go online to The Digital Map Store and check it out. They have this great feature where you can look at a satellite photo like on google maps but then click and turn the photo into a topo map and back again. In my part of the world, where the land has been bulldosed in some places by the glaciers but not in others, your looking for those contour lines. Where the lines run close togethor is good, where they almost touch is even better. Let that creek bend so the contour lines face north and the sat photos show a woods and it will start to bother me. I'll catch myself thinking about it, looking it up again in a few days. Trying to find out who it belongs to, who I need permission from, where I need to park, whats the best route in. If I get enough answers I'll pack a lunch, throw it in the daypack with the camera and take a walk. Most of these don't pan out. I've gotten good enough at it, developed enough of a feeling for the business, that most of these woods have at least some ginseng. Just not enough to dig in, not enough that I could do so and feel good about it. But just often enough, sometimes not even every year, you get lucky. That's how I found the thousand dollar woods. By the road it looks like crap. But upstream those lines bent and bent and ran togethor in a cliff then opened up into a little steep valley, what in the smokies they call a cove, before running back into cliffs again. And that bowl, that cove, faced dead north. It bothered me for a long time, maybe a month, before I found the time for what looked like a long bad walk. Going up the creek, I finally decided wet feet were better that fighting the thick brush that lined the creekside. Sure enough those contour lines turned out to be cliffs. Straight up and down. So steep swallows nested in holes safe from any predators. There was a tiny rill, a staircase of rock that ran wet only in the rain cut into the cliff. Grabbing ahold of a tree root I hoisted myself up and into the tiny cut and worked my way climbing up to the trees. Right there was just a bit of woods along the rim and then fields beyond. But to my left I could see the big trees of the bowl and and I walked around and down into the bowl. Right away I saw a liitle two prong, a baby ginseng plant, and a big baneberry plant. I love baneberry, the deadly poisonous plant loves just the same kind of soil as ginseng. When prospecting a woods I'll look for baneberry as much as ginseng. There are other indicator plants but none as good around here as baneberry. Well maybe maidenhair fern but it's as rare as ginseng in my woods. I walked over the rim into the bowl. The creek was one of those we have around here where melting ice from the glaciers cut steep ravines into otherwise mostly flat country. The bowl was maybe only a couple hundred yards across and half that down to the creek and I walked thru it without stopping. With, I'm sure, my mouth hanging wide open in wonder. For here in the bowl there was not a single spot where you could stand and not see a ginseng plant, in most places you could see alot of ginseng plants. This was the kind of place that ginseng grew as it must have when Daniel Boone dug sang. My first thought was someone had planted it but if they did they must have died a long time ago for many of the plants were older than me. No, instead the cliffs, the thickets, the corn fields and just plain luck had protected it for all those years. I sat down next to a patch of twenty or so big plants and had my lunch. And began to think, right then and there I decided I'd order an extra pound of seed this year. I was replanting this patch back when I was done digging it this fall. Being poor and having an old truck in need of repair I'd dig it but I wouldn't be the cause of the great patch to go away. There's about four thousand seeds in a pound of seed. Sitting there looking around I decided that's probably a good number. The cliffs and creek that protected this place for so long should be good for another few decades ar least before someone else besides me finally wanders in again. While sitting there I noticed a bit of old barbed wire sticking up out of the leaves. Pulling it out I found I had a piece of wire about two feet long like none I'd ever seen before. It must be the year of old wire, just a few weeks before on a nature preserve on the Little Miami I'd found a piece of wire called buckthorn that was from the 1880's. Looking this new old wire up later at the house I found the wire is called "Hallner's Greenbriar" by collectors with a patent date of 1878. I guess I'm now a barbed wire collector.
I suffered badly the two weeks till the opening of ginseng season. That's when I gave the place the name, the thousand dollar woods, because I thought I should get that much out of just that little hollow. I must have looked at the woods twenty times online, following contour lines in my mind, trying to tell how big the trees were. And then as time drew near came the forcast. The forcast from hell. Ninety eight the first day, ninety nine to a hundred the second, ninety six the third. I packed all the water I could carry in the daypack and started at dawn. The first day at the patch all I did was dig, I never got out of sight of where I started till the heat was too much. The second day I dug for four hours and then walked. I probably dug about a half pound outside the patch but wasted several hour floundering around in cut over woods. Which after looking at again online that night it was obvious what I should have done and where I should have gone. Way up the creek from the patch the contour lines bend and face north again, and it looked like big trees on the satellite photos. Now this bothered me alot. So at daylight the third day I walked past the ginseng, past at least a couple more pounds and up the creek. As soon as I passed the mess I'd wasted half of the day before on things opened up nicely. And it was steep, cliffs interspersed with steep hillsides that had me holding on to small trees to climb them. No giant patches, just a ginseng plant, then ten feet on another and seven feet on another. And I began to melt, I'd probably packed in close to a gallon of water but it was gone by one, by three I knew it was no longer safe and I decided to leave cutting across a couple big cornfields towards the truck. I should have left at least a couple hours before but everytime I thought of leaving there was another ginseng plant. So I paid the price. I ended up laying flat out on the ground in the middle of the second corn field puking back up the last of my water unable to go any further. After about an hour I wallowed out to the road. (note to self..3 trips with temps in the upper nineties might be too much in my old age)
So after three trips I still hadn't made it to the back of the woods yet, I'd walked over and left another pound or two of ginseng in the patch, and I'd managed to dig around eight pounds of ginseng. After the first weekend I'd say it's shaping up to be the kind of season I've always dreamed of.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Something old, something new

"I've dug it in places where the sun hardly ever hit it. You'll really find more of it in dark coves and dark ground than anywhere's else"
...Lake Stiles, an old sang hunter in the 1973 edition of Foxfire


This year I've dug alot of really old ginseng. These three roots from this picture are from todays walk in the woods. You see every year the bud that produced that years top leaves a scar till you eventually end up with the long "necks" as ginseng hunters call them that you see here. After a while these seem to smooth out and become hard to count on the really really old ones and I'm never sure enough to say "well this ones 25 or this ones 50" like some guys do. I once found an ancient root with a neck over six inches long but half of it was just sorta bumpy and impossible to count. Though I could count 50 at least on the half I could count. If I ever dug a hundred year old root that was it. It was growing about halfway up a cliff I had no business being on and nobody else had ever been dumb enough to ginseng hunt there I guess. It seems every trip has produced a few old timers like these in this photo. Not really giant roots this year just old ones. Old enough to make me have a twinge of guilt in the digging. But not real "lose sleep over" guilt though, because for every plant I've dug this year I've planted a dozen seeds. Some in patches tucked away in out of the way places to return to someday, but some just scattered throughout my ginseng haunts to insure ginseng for the future. For a while there in the eighties I thought ginseng might end up extinct someday but play stations and world of warcraft changed all that. I'm a youngster at fortyfive around here in the ginseng hunting world. All the others are getting too old to get out or are already gone. Give it another decade or two and at least here in Ohio wild ginseng will be coming back strong. A long line, a tradition dating back to the 1700's is fading out, replaced by MP3's and WEI games. In the last two years I've planted around 8000 ginseng seeds in the wild or, at 200 to 300 mature plants to the pound, maybe 25 or 30 pounds of ginseng if it were all dug and dried. As much or more than I've dug in my lifetime. I like the idea that there is more ginseng growing in the wild because I dig it rather than less. I've often wondered if the great patch in the thousand dollar woods didn't start out this way, some old ginseng hunter planting a few dozen seeds in the fifties or sixties and then forgetting about it, or dying even.