Each spring at the start of bug season I receive mysterious visitors to the fringes of a bush lot I have along Highway 35.
They arrive in a white van, park on the edge of the highway then scurry into the woods with black garbage bags. From a distance they seem to be digging small plants and placing them in the bags.
Whenever I try to approach to ask them what they are doing, they scurry back to the van and drive off. They wear mosquito head nets so I can’t tell who they are except that they are middle age and speak what sounds like an Asian language. Usually there is a man and two women.
I don’t really care that they are on my property because I suspect they are gathering spring shoots of some kind for cooking and eating. But I would really like to know because it might be something interesting that I might want to cook and eat.
Various friends and family have offered guesses: Fiddleheads (ours are not the tasty delicacies found on the East Coast); wild asparagus (I would have found and eaten that before them), wild leeks (a possibility).
There are many possibilities because our woods are filled with dozens of edible low growing plants that most of us know nothing about.
Someone recently raised another possibility: “Is it ginseng they are digging up?”
Ginseng? I never knew that Ontario had wild American Ginseng, the roots of which have been used for thousands of years by our Indigenous people and other cultures as a traditional medicine.
We do indeed have it. It is found in the bottom half of Ontario, western Quebec and 34 U.S. states. It grows in mature hardwood forests that offer dark rich soil.
North American ginseng is similar to the Asian ginsengs and like the Asians our Indigenous peoples used it as an important medicine for ailments ranging from fevers to indigestion and headaches.
Father Joseph-François Lafitau, a French Jesuit priest, is credited with finding ginseng in the New World. He had read about Asian ginseng in reports from Jesuits in China and believed Canada had similar climate and surroundings and started looking for it.
In 1718 he found a ginseng plant growing near Montreal and was able to identify it definitely with the help of the Iroquois, who of course had been using it forever.
After that, trade in ginseng root exploded. Ginseng became a major export of New France, second only to furs. Trappers and frontiersmen made small fortunes digging it and selling it.
John Jacob Astor, the American fur baron, sold a boat load of ginseng to China, and legendary woodsman Daniel Boone is said to have dug the plants and sold loads of roots to China.
Like with so many other things, the European takeover of the New World began exhausting ginseng supplies.
Overharvesting and habitat loss have resulted in wild ginseng being declared a species at risk in Canada. It is illegal to harvest it. The penalty is as severe as a $250,000 fine and up to five years jail time.
Our Canadian courts often are too kind and poachers generally receive a fine of a few thousand dollars and a suspended sentence.
One wild ginseng root the size of an adult finger can bring a poacher $1,000 or more on the black market.
Ginseng scarcity is driving up prices and it has become an important cultivated crop in southern Ontario. Interestingly, some of Ontario’s new cultivated ginseng industry is operating on fields that once grew tobacco.
The Ontario Ginseng Growers Association reports that it now has about 160 members producing cultivated ginseng, much of which is sold to Asian markets. Ginseng demand is increasing in Asia because of improving economies and a growing middle class.
The federal government says that Canada exported 263 million kilograms of cultivated ginseng, worth $239 million, to Asia in 2016.
It is a valuable plant but I don’t think that’s what the visitors to my property were after. They were picking some kind of shoot to eat, much like my wife and I sometimes go looking for tender young dandelions for salad.