Hunting With Nothing but a Shovel

What would you say if I told you it was possible to go out into the woods hunting with nothing more than a shovel and a game bag…yet you could still be successful? What would you say if I told you that if you were successful it could also mean lots of money in your pocket? Sound intriguing?

What I’m talking about is going out in the woods ginseng hunting. Ginseng is a woodland plant that carries with it a rich tradition in our American heritage. This once abundant plant was so popular and profitable that many stories were told of early settlers in Minnesota actually paying off their farm mortgages by digging this plant’s root and selling it. Unfortunately, the boon years of ginseng hunting are long ago behind us, yet it’s still possible to occasionally find this woodland root with a little luck and knowledge of its habitat requirements.

Ginseng’s popularity stems from the root that many folks believe to have certain medicinal properties. In fact, it is the root of the plant that is harvested and then air-dried by the ‘seng hunter. Native Americans used it for treating various ailments, but records show there was trade for the root going on with markets in the Orient dating back at least a couple of centuries. The Chinese have long believed the root to be an aphrodisiac and to aid one’s longevity. Most modern medicine authorities, however, have been skeptical about ginseng’s true benefit to the medical world.

Unfortunately, because of the high demand ginseng is a perfect example of a resource exploited almost to the point of becoming endangered. Someday soon, probably within our lifetimes, the wild strain of ginseng will likely be protected from any future harvest or trade.

I mention the wild strain of ginseng because today most ginseng in trade is cultivated thanks to large commercial farming operations. But the ginseng that is wild is truly the most sought after and good quality wild root this year will bring the hunter on average $250 to $300 per pound (dried). So, you can see that spending a few hours out in the woods can be profitable, if you know where to look.

The problem is most folks who hunt ginseng, and there are fewer and fewer people each year, will not disclose their locations. In fact, expecting someone to share their hotspots with you is quite unlikely. You see…when a ginseng hunter harvests the root with a trowel by law in Minnesota he is required to plant the red tell-tale seeds (berries) in the same general area. What this means is over the course of the years an area that has held ginseng in the past will likely continue to have it into the future. For much more in-depth information about the history and the harvesting requirements in Minnesota, click here.

I’ll be honest with you that since the mid-70s I have gone ginseng hunting but never been very successful at it. Only once have I been walking in the woods and found a nice patch that could have been harvested. The problem was that particular day I was squirrel hunting and I didn’t get permission from the landowner to do anything else but squirrel hunt…so I left it. Still, it was a very interesting sight…and it proved to be an educational moment for the others in my hunting party who would have walked right past the plant not knowing the significance of the find.

There are many good books that explain the necessary habitat for ginseng as well as showing the tell-tale saw-tooth edges of the leaves. Find a good book and make sure you know what it is you’re looking to discover. In the fall the best distinguishing characteristic is the bright red berries usually visible on the plant. But don’t mistake the Jack-in-the-pulpit plant for ginseng, as this plant will also have bright red berries during this time of the year. More importantly, ginseng will usually have prongs of three leaves that could potentially be mistaken with poison ivy to the unsuspecting novice. Use caution and consult a good guidebook.

Perhaps in the history of Minnesota there has been no other native plant that has been so profitable and intriguing to the person who invested the time to learn about it and search for it. The next time you are deep in the woods – where it typically only gets a couple hours of sunlight each day because of the mature trees filtering the light – be careful where you step.

© 2004 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction without Prior Permission.