Friday, August 28, 2009

The Plant That Dare Not Speak Its Name

You can still hear it whispered in these hills ... sang.

On more than one occasion I have seen hikers pass by dressed in garb made for wading through dense undergrowth. They wear heavy vests with many pockets over thick shirts and chaps over long pants. They carry thick walking sticks. Oddly they often carry a small plastic grocery bag filled with something. They are gathering. If they are on someone else's land, they are poaching.

Last year, the story goes, two or three men were found trespassing and held at gunpoint until the feds arrived. Next time I saw my neighbor from over the hill I asked him about what I had heard. Yes he had found poachers on his land looking for sang. He was ready for them and the bear hunters too. His family's name haunts the entire valley below. I would not want to cross him.

Trespassing was not the only violation. The sale and export of sang is highly regulated by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. That makes it the feds business.

I have searched high and low for Panax quinquefolius, Ginseng, the most valuable medicinal herb that might be found in these woods. Centuries of harvesting that began with Ginseng as one of the first major exports of colonial America have made it a very rare plant.

Photo - NC Museum of Botanical History

Wild Ginseng is more highly valued than a field cultivated crop and can be sold for as much as $500 per dry pound compared to field grown sang selling at $30 per pound. There is a marked difference in the appearance of the harvested root between the two. That price still sends diggers into the forest hunting for wild sang.

Photo - NC Museum of Botanical History

I purchased the book, Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and Other Woodland Medicinals by W. Scott Persons and Jeanine M. Davis shortly after I arrived thinking that if I start planting now there might be enough of value in the future to supplement the meager gov'mint check I might be getting in my doddering years.

So far I have begun collecting and sowing seeds of Allium triccocum, Ramps, to start new patches of them on the mountain.

Photo - NC Museum of Botanical History

Last year I received two Ginseng seeds. They might germinate on their second spring, needing sixteen to twenty two months before dormancy is broken. If all goes well they may come up this spring. In another nine to eleven years the roots would be large enough to harvest, having been grown in their natural wild setting.

It's one sang at a time, until I find a better seed source or buy them in bulk sometime.


Siria said...

Hi Christopher! That is really interesting! With all that land you have there is bound to be some "sang" in there somewhere! And here is hoping those seeds germinate too...

Christopher C. NC said...

Hi Siria, if there is any sang here, it is one elusive plant in all that wild green. The back two acres is an ocean of five foot tall Jewelweed, the Impatiens pallida and you can't see anything else but that.

new york city garden said...

This post reminds me of the book "Prodigal Summer" by Kingsolver.

Ever read it?

chuck b. said...

How exciting! $500/lb is a powerful poaching motivation, I'm sure. Do people put up "No Trespassing" signs in the woods? Or is it generally obvious when you're and public or private land?

Anonymous said...

Love this post - like a mystery! Guess you're gonna have to join the club and get you a shotgun with a rack across the back of your truck cab, haha!
The poachers remind me of the crabbers outside my house who come in the dark of night (illegal). They have made crabs a very rare species in these parts, off the Chesapeake.


Lola said...

Good post Christopher. If you ever saw "sang" for real you would be able to spot it. A very interesting plant indeed. Didn't know what it's worth today. About 300 when I was up that way.
Thanks for posting about it.
Ramps are very good to cook with too. I pickled some one yr. Raw or cooked they are good. But they are loud also. Another of Mother Nature's goodies about to go by the way side. From what I understand you are only allowed a certain amount from the mtns.
Any poachers should be dealt with severely.
Check up about the buck from Cades Cove that was named "Streamer".

Siria said...

If I find any on my property I'll share with you. The problem is that those leaves look like so many others in my woods. And trying to traverse the steep incline is another problem. I'm going to start paying attention though... :)

Christopher C. NC said...

HI NYCG. No I have not read that book, but it sure is based in this area.

Chuck we have no trespassing, hunting, fishing ect signs all around the property lines. If you do not post them than hunters and others are free to enter and will.

Bev, if I get a good crop growing of expensive stuff I just may need a gun. Or maybe surveillance cameras.

Lola the book I have listed 2005 prices as between $350 to $500. The table showed the prices over about 15 years for wild and field grown. The last diggers I saw up here was during ramp season and they did dig from our garden.

Siria one of these days I will get to your house and we can inventory what you have.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Wow--hope can get this to grow in NE. I see a new lawn. (a joke)

Lovely cabin, lovely plants all around--truly good taste (because I grow many of the same).

Frances said...

Hi Christopher, I knew immediately what you were referring to. It is the opium poppy of the southeast US. Semi's father in law is a harvester. They have a huge acreage in the plateau and he knows exactly where the patches are. He also knows every plant that grows on his land, not the botanical name, the common name. A real Tennesseean. I will see if he can get some seeds for you. We had is growing behind our house in NE TN too, along with morel mushrooms. The people with plastic grocer sacks were always there in spring and fall.

Anonymous said...

as a hobbie i love to go into the woods an look for ginseng,goldenseal and many other native plants, i have my own patches of the plants an others an i also worry about the threat of poachers,ive been watching over my ginseng for more than 15 years ive watch seedlings germanate to 3 prongs for quite some time an it never gets old knowing you started with a handfull of seeds. my grandfather was a man that could identify almost anything an to this day i know he has helped me in more way than i could think an if theres one thing he told me is for every plant that puts out ten or more seeds take at least five an scatter them ten feet in any direction from where you found them, now i know this is odd put as of this year there are more than 500 plants growing in the mountain side where me and my grandfather have dug and planted for years an year