ELKINS, W.Va. (WBOY) — In West Virginia, hunting for ginseng is a deeply rooted tradition, connecting all the way back to the native indigenous population of Appalachia. For years, people have believed the plant helps with a variety of conditions like anxiety, depression, and inflammation.

Ed Daniels, owner of Shady Grove Botanicals, is a registered ginseng dealer in Randolph County who gives talks up and down the East Coast about the ethical and sustainable harvesting of ginseng and its future in the wild.

Who can harvest ginseng?

West Virginia law states no permit is needed for people to hunt wild ginseng on public land and their private property. However, they must present a valid ID when selling to a registered ginseng dealer. The West Virginia digging season starts on Sept. 1 and runs through Nov. 30.

To harvest ginseng, the law states the root must be at least five years old and once harvested, the hunter has until March 31 of the following calendar year to sell to a registered dealer or have the roots weight-receipted by one of the Division of Forestry weigh stations.

“Possession of ginseng roots is prohibited from April 1 through Aug. 31 without a weight-receipt from the DOF,” according to the West Virginia Division of Forestry.  

Ginseng hunting in West Virginia, is incredibly secret and a very private affair. As the root has become overharvested over the years, quality ginseng has become harder to find, so hunters keep their harvesting locations private. Daniels said hunters also do this in order to keep the future of plants they didn’t harvest safe from poachers who may not be thinking of harvesting it ethically.

What is ethical harvesting of ginseng?

To harvest ginseng ethically, several steps should be taken, including making sure the root is at least five years old with red berries and replanting those berries in the same place. Taking the leaves of the plant and leaving the root to continue growing is another way to make sure you are harvesting sustainably.

The number of prongs and leaves on a plant tells its age. According to the West Virginia Division of Forestry, “Dig ginseng roots only when the plant has three or more prongs (with no fewer than 15 leaflets).” Red berries can also indicate a mature plant.

“What we call a three leave, that’s usually a first year—it’ll come up as the three leaves. Second year, they may have the five leaves, and by the third year they should be a two prong,” said Daniels.

If the leaves and berries indicate a mature plant, the root can be looked at for further evidence of age. “Looking for the growth, each little nick on [the root] indicates a year’s growth, back and forth. And every year that the top goes off, it gets another nick and then has what’s called the growth bud,” said Daniels.

Daniels said he waits to harvest the plant even if it has already surpassed the legal limit. “If you harvest it the first year, that put off seed, you killed the genetics. You know, you got seed that’ll come up, but it’s gonna take them seven years to start putting off seed. So, I want that plant has mature plant to put off seed three, four years, so there’s a bunch of a little ones coming up in the years to come that will produce more seed and perpetuate into the larger patch.”

Another way to ethically and sustainably harvest the plant is to just pick the leaves of the plant and leave the root to grow. Daniels said the leaves of the plant have the same properties as the root. “There is use for every part of this plant. Eventually I think you’re going to see a lot more people going to just the top,” he said.

According to Daniels, the leaves can be dried to make tea with similar medicinal effects as with the roots. He also said herbalists have been moving towards encouraging people to harvest the leaves and leave the roots behind. This practice will allow for stronger roots and for stronger medicinal properties to come through. “The longer the neck, the stronger the medicine; 15 to 25 years is a really good ‘seng,” said Daniels.

What is it used for?

Traditionally, humans have used the root for medicinal reasons. Daniels said in Chinese tradition, people take it on a regular basis. “They use it every day to prevent getting sick. Where today in our world, in the United States, people might get it after they’re sick. Wanting the energy or to help boost their immune [system].”

Daniels said the way to achieve any of these results include making tea from the root or leaves, taking tinctures, powdered and encapsulated roots, or eating the root or leaves directly.

Where can it be found?

There are two main kinds of ginseng that can be found around the world, American (Panax quinquefolius) and Asian (Panax Ginseng). Within the Asian ginseng there are sub varieties: Chinese, Korean and far-eastern Siberian. Wild American ginseng can be found from the Midwest all the way Maine and further north into eastern Canada.

In the United States, some of the best quality ginseng can be found in areas that have high elevation, including states in the Appalachian Mountains like West Virginia.

“The root that’s dug say 3,800 feet or above will have a more of a darker bronze color. Roots that’s dug in the southern part of the state may be of a white yellow color… The quality of and the character and the value of the root is higher from elevation,” said Daniels.

Ginseng products like tea, tinctures and capsules can be purchased online as well as from small locally run shops who focus on ginseng’s abilities.

Can I plant my own ginseng?

In West Virginia it is legal to plant your own ginseng, however, according to DOF, a determination of your property must be done. “The determination is to make sure there is no wild ginseng in the area you are wanting to plant. Determinations are done between April 15 and June 15 of each year… After a determination has been done, you can become a ginseng grower and a permit will be issued.”

More information about West Virginia’s ginseng laws, can be found here.