THAR’S GOLD in them thar hills – Right here in the Northwest and throughout Illinois tip to top gold. Green gold, that is and almost next in price to the precious metal, Ginseng.
The Ginseng root has been a key ingredient in Chinese medicinal history for five thousand years. It must do something right, even if it is psychological, that’s important, too.
CARROLL COUNTY HISTORY, 1913
One of the products of these groves besides the game and berries, which were very abundant, was the root of the wild Ginseng. Those, in early days were gathered by the Indian and after them the trappers and hunters and were usually sold to druggists. It is now shipped to China where the Chinese use it as medicine. As the wild root became scarce it became very valuable, and in the late years the cultivation of the root has become a new industry. At Georgetown in Cherry Grove Mr. Switzer has started; quite a large garden with wild roots found in the Grove. He uses artificial shade, as it has to be gown in the shade. CL Hostetter, near Mt. Carroll, has nearly an acre in cultivation under the natural shade of the trees. Holman and Moore in Woodland Township have an acre or more under cultivation under their trees. The Ditsworth brothers, Salem Township, were among the first to experiment in raising Ginseng. There are several others in the county engaged in this new industry.
Asians pronounced the name jin-chen or close to that. (It’s not to be confused with another wild plant, gentian). Jin chen meat “likeness of man” or “cure-all”. The reason for the man comparison was that the long root resembles a torso and legs of a human. In the ancient “Doctrine of Signatures” a plant that was similar to a body part signified that it helped in healing that unit because the Ginseng root was in human form and it was used to heal or cure everything from colds to cancer, anxiety to warts, sexual impotency, dysentery, hangovers and….you get the idea. No wonder it was the drug of immortality.
No wonder too, that the roots even today bring upwards of fifty dollars to five hundred dollars a pound depending on whether or not it is gathered from a cultivated farm or from a wild plot, the latter being preferred. And, believe it or not, American Ginseng is preferred the world over. It’s a stronger and more potent. However, it takes somewhere above two hundred fifty roots to make a pound, each root weighing a little less than an ounce. You see then why it’s called green-gold. It’s a little easier to harvest a crop of Ginseng than to mine for gold but not by much. It’s very hard work. The wild Ginseng prefers heavily timbered land, ground of humus moist soil. Those environments are found among the hills, ridges and gullies most times so planting and caring for a crop is as difficult as it is to harvest. Tractors and farm equipment can’t be used in such terrain. And the farmer waits up to seven-eight years before harvesting a crop in the wild; the land must lie dormant for a decade. So the soil again build up it’s nutrients to support the next generation. The entire plant s dug up for its root so a grower must start again. The plant is a perennial and if not dug, can grow bigger and bigger which is another selling point. Size does matter!! The cultivated Ginseng, however, doesn’t take as long to produce. The seed is planted by hand and left to lay dormant for a year when it then begins to grow and sprout but it, too, takes awhile to grow to size-twelve to fifteen inches in height. Four years is about the length of time for the cultivated variety to reach maturity.
Wild Ginseng likes a hardwood timber, no conifers, because of the shade; the cultivated sort is shade by frames supporting heavy netting or an elaborate, movable plank “roof” for it’s artificial shading. No matter where the Ginseng is set to crop the Illinois Ginseng Growers Association estimates that it costs above $25,000 an acre to begin. But at harvest, say five to ten years later, the price collected for the long-awaited harvest could exceed $100,000.
Surprisingly, perhaps, is that there are several Ginseng farms throughout Illinois, many in the central part of the state…Champaign, Pittsfield, etc. Sellers and growers must have licenses in Illinois and a few other states. The entire Illinois crop probably doesn’t exceed ten thousand pounds, which could grow larger if more farmers had the patience to try the unique crop. There are maybe about seventy licenses in Illinois. Not all sellers, however, are certified and sell to silent licenses in the state. There’s a Black Market in Ginseng, too, you see! Part of the reason for licensing is some sellers either don’t know their product or will try to slip in roots that resemble the Ginseng but are not.
Back in 1979 the US Fish and Wildlife Department began keeping better statistics of Ginseng collecting. At the time four hundred thousand pounds was brought in for sale…by 1983 the lure of the dollar sign saw the amount rise to well over a million pounds. And it has continued to rise. The price, too. Although corn, soybeans, wheat are Illinois’ abundant crop but only about ten thousand pounds of Ginseng is grown, it could be a lucrative crop for anyone willing to put out the money, hard work and energy to grow the “plant of immortality.”
Driving up US 51 through Wisconsin you will see many Ginseng farms beside the road with heavy netting protecting the somewhat mysterious crop. Farms have grown in numbers over the years. In fact, you may be surprised to know that Wisconsin is the largest grower of Ginseng in the nation, perhaps the world. Ninety percent of the nation’s Ginseng comes from Wisconsin. China the global leader in consumption has relied on Ginseng these thousands of years, having all but destroyed their crops environment through the natures, using the timber for fuel or building materials. Once Chinese emperor announced he would pay the equivalent of $25,000 for a root to start his own Ginseng bed. A war was fought over territory where it grew, an example of value placed on the plant. In early 1700s French Jesuit missionaries in China learned how important the plant had been/was to their hosts and one wrote an article about it for a British publication. A Jesuit in Canada read it and realized an industry could boom and had pounds of the plant gathered to send to China, using the local natives to dig the plant. It immediately became a business. Those first clipper ships, so romantic in our national lore, often carried cargoes of Ginseng.
John Jacob Astor who became fabulously rich dealing in furs, made his first money trading in Ginseng.
America’s hero/icon, Daniel Boone, is thought to have made much more money dealing in Ginseng than trapping and trading in pelts.
During his lifetime Ginseng was popularly known as “Sang” or “Seng”. Sophisticated bankers or rugged backwoodsmen called the crop by that name, Boone included. There is record extant showing that he sold fifteen tons of “Sang” in Philadelphia in 1788. He also traded in New York, or wherever the price was right. It’s also recorded that two barges of Boone’s sank on the Ohio River, they carrying two tons of the root, Ginseng. Daniel Boone used the Native American also to dig the plant but as time passed the natives began seeing their medicinal plants disappearing, too. It was important in many tribes throughout America and they too used it as a “cure-all.”
Headaches, fever, sores, female complaints and love charms. (No recipe included). A mixture of ground Ginseng root, mica, gelatin and snake meat was highly regarded among the Native Americans as a way for an Indian maiden to attract the attention of a brave.
By the mid 1800s Ginseng trade began to dwindle. Other events, inventions and changes in society took place and fixed attention on them so as simple a thing as the “man-plant decreased in notice”. In 1859 it is known that about eighteen tons of Ginseng was shipped to the Orient. Little more than a hundred years later, 1966, one hundred tons was going to the same markets. It was worth four million dollars. During the middle years of the 1800s the market had decreased; but by the turn-of the century, 1900, it picked up again and in the mid-century, the twentieth, it began to increase, many countries experimenting with all sorts of extracts and powders coming on the market especially in health food stores.
Attempts in both America and China became on going in creating a man-made environment in which to grow the plant. Success may be said to have occurred in America because huge amounts have been shipped annually to China. Ninety five percent, as before mentioned, goes to Asia, the balance is used for markets in New York and San Francisco where large Oriental populations live and work. Other is sent to small outlet stores, mostly for tea and small exotic items.
Russia, too, has become interested and has sent a Ginseng tonic on space flights to combat infections and anemia. Ginseng has been found to stimulate the middle brain, the heart, lowers blood pressure, stress levels and tension, and lowers blood sugar. It works on the adrenal cortex to quiet action. It is said, however, that the effects of Ginseng aren’t nearly as great, or as extensive as once believed!
There’s more to say about Ginseng, green-gold. Next week