Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ginseng Hunters

We first noticed them three springs ago. They wore head nets against the blackflies and moved slowly through our bush lot, searching the forest floor for something growing there.
            My wife, always curious about plants, approached one of them. “No English,” he said and the four of them scattered and went back to their car on the highway. We assumed they were gathering fern shoots for cooking, although the ferns in our area are not like the edible and delicious fiddleheads.
Wild ginseng with autumn berries
            They appeared again a year later. And in May this year they were back with their knives and plastic bags. We paid them little attention even though they were trespassing, they were not bothering us or our bush lot.
            Then a neighbour down the highway explained the annual appearance of these people. “Ginseng,” said. “They are after wild ginseng.”
            I had heard about wild ginseng but never imagined it grew on my property. Some research confirmed that it grows in thick, shaded forests. It was used by the Indians and traded as a commodity. The Jesuits are said to have taken it in trade and sold it to the Far East. Its fleshy forked roots are used as an aphrodisiac, muscle relaxant, stimulant and daily health supplement, among other things.
            The market for wild grown ginseng has exploded in recent years. In some places it sells for as much as $250 to $500 a pound.
            Ginseng plants grow 40 to 60 centimetres tall, and are not especially noticeable among the many other forest plants. The most important identifying feature is their single stalk flower head. The flower is greenish white in early summer and produces green berries. In the fall, the berries turn bright red and each berry has two small seeds.
            High prices and increasing demand has caused a decline in natural wild ginseng populations. Now that I know all that, I’ll be less tolerant of the folks with head nets, knives and bags who invade my property each spring.

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