Last updated: September 01. 2013 8:42AM - 2138 Views
Bob Fala Outdoors Columnist

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The roots for the traditional ginseng digging season literally run deep in the Coalfields of southern West Virginia! The annual digging for the treasured medicinal herb begins on September 1.

Locally known as “sangers,” the diggers of ginseng at this rugged mountainous sector pre-date coal mining, reaching all the way back to George Washington himself.

However, its dried root monetary value, measured in ounces, is more akin to gold than that of coal.

In common with the local coal counties of Wyoming, McDowell, Logan, Mingo, Boone and Raleigh, in that order, are the state’s best historical ginseng producers. All that based on the past 34-years average production compliments of the West Virginia Division of Forestry (DOF). DOF is responsible for the management of the tiny and subtle forb of the forest floor. What’s more, the stated six counties alone account for nearly half the Mountain State’s average annual production of roughly seven tons of dried root over that same period. Nevertheless, each and every one of the other 49 counties contributes to some extent.

That gives the ginseng season a nice statewide ring to it. The Asian name for the root translates into something like “little-men,” for the arm and leg-like offshoots to the whitish carrot-like roots. Last year, diggers earned an average $410 dollars an ounce per DOF. “It takes about 300 roots to make a pound of ginseng. The price of ginseng per pound fluctuates based on demand and has been recorded to sell from as high as $700 per pound to as low as $200 per pound. In 2011, according to State Forester Randy Dye, ginseng generated approximately $2 million for West Virginia’s economy.”

“People, especially here in West Virginia and in Asian cultures, have believed for centuries in the health benefits of ginseng, which makes the growing and digging of it economically important to the state’s economy and the harvesters’ wallets,” Dye said.

“Dye said that 4,920 pounds of ginseng were harvested during the 2011 season, which was a 12 percent decline from the previous season. Robin Black, who has worked with the Division of Forestry’s (DOF) ginseng program for more than 20 years, said she’s not worried about ginseng digging ever ceasing, though. “Ginseng digging is a time-honored tradition, usually passed down from generation to generation. I don’t believe it will ever fade away,” Black said. “In fact, in many areas of West Virginia, digging ginseng provides a second or third income for many families especially during tough economic times. Ginseng digging is a great way for families to get out into the forest together, learn about the importance of sustaining a native species and make some extra money.”

“Ginseng plants are ready to harvest when their berries turn red. The plant is dug out of the ground and its roots removed. West Virginia state law requires anyone digging ginseng to replant the berries/seeds from the parent plant in the spot where it was harvested because this helps continue the species. The age of the plant is determined by the number of prongs; only plants with three or more prongs are considered old enough to harvest.”

Per DOF, the following laws also apply to the harvesting of ginseng:

• Anyone digging ginseng on someone else’s property must carry written permission from the landowner allowing him or her to harvest ginseng on the property.

• No permit is needed to dig wild ginseng.

• Digging ginseng on public lands, including state forests, wildlife management areas or state parks, is prohibited.

• Diggers have until March 31 of each year to sell to a registered West Virginia ginseng dealer or have roots weight-receipted at one of the Division of Forestry weigh stations.

• Possession of ginseng roots is prohibited from April 1 through Aug. 31 without a weight-receipt from the DOF.

• The ginseng digging season runs through Nov. 30.

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