You’re not apt to see these hunters traipsing through the woods even though the season opened here in Minnesota just this past Tuesday. They don’t usually carry a big gun, in fact, these hunters likely leave their firearms at home — they’re just simply not needed.
Oh, sure, these folks are out hunting…but they’re doing it with lots of stealth and secrecy for a very good reason. You see, the prey is not some wily animal proving difficult to stalk. Nope, this time it happens to be an equally elusive plant known as wild ginseng (Panax quinquefolius).
The allure of heading to the woods each fall in search of wild ginseng has been part of our outdoors culture for many generations. Dating back to the 1700s, it’s been considered by many to be the most valuable plant found naturally growing in North America. Indeed, it’s hard to dispute that claim when back as recently as 2007 the market price for clean, dried, wild ginseng roots hovered around $1,000 per pound.
Of course, market conditions were very favorable that year. According to Rusty Cumberland, Northwest Trappers Supply in Owatonna, MN, he expects to see 2009 wild ginseng root starting out at about $325 per pound with the possibility it could fluctuate slightly higher as the season progresses on.
Despite the fact wild ginseng has a storied history with many early pioneers rumored to have paid off their farm mortgages; diggin’ ginseng today is a far different proposition. Truth is, for many modern ginseng hunters they might be lucky to find even a half dozen roots — a far cry from what it takes to accumulate a pound of marketable commodity.
Still, to many serious outdoorsmen the quest for wild ginseng represents a challenge they’re quite willing to make during a few afternoons each fall. Long gone are the days when diggers could strike it rich wandering the woodland hills of Minnesota. Certainly there was a time in history when the ginseng rush could easily be compared to the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. Those boom days are now but a fading memory on both accounts.
In Minnesota, wild ginseng hunters do not need a license to hunt for the root, but diggers must follow some very important rules if the native plant will continue to thrive in its woodlands habitat. To read those specific rules click HERE and HERE for additional details.
On a personal level, I’ve never been extremely successful at finding the highly sought-after plant. It’s not so much that it’s hard to identify, rather, wild ginseng just isn’t found growing in as many places as it once used to exist. A big part of the problem for wild ginseng is the same culprit many wildlife species face — an encroaching human population that likes to build houses and live in secluded wooded areas.
Actually, the few chance encounters I’ve had with finding ginseng has often come during my squirrel hunting outings in late September. And while you might think the plant’s red berries are a dead give-away…well, I have news for you. There’s another plant found growing on the woodland floor called the Jack-in-the-pulpit that happens to be much more prevalent and also sports bright red seeds.
If you’re not familiar with wild ginseng I urge you to read more about it on the Internet or pick up this great book. I strongly believe that part of the richness of being an outdoors person is to learn about and appreciate our plants, as well as having knowledge of our woodland animals. Even if wild ginseng never puts a penny in your pocket, discovering more about its unique history and woodland lore will surely enrich any true outdoorsman’s soul.
© 2009 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction without Prior Permission.