Ginseng: The Man-Root That Has Shaped Mankind
Ginseng is a shy plant, a wallflower of sorts, and it is quite particular about its living accommodations. Out of all of Earth’s domains, only the north Asian woodlands, the Ozark Mountains, and the Appalachians have proved worthy real estate for wild ginseng. Ginseng and I both call Appalachia home, yet, until recently, we hadn’t been properly introduced.
As virtual interns for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, my sister Rosalie and I spent the last year researching the history, culture, ecology, and economy of American ginseng. The internship focused on American Ginseng: Local Knowledge, Global Roots, for a research project leading up to the 2020 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Informed by archival research and interviews, we produced a creative multimedia storytelling series to demonstrate the cultural and environmental relevance of ginseng.
Rosalie and I share a deep appreciation for the natural world, especially that of our Appalachian home. Using different media, we use storytelling to serve the same purpose: revive human appreciation for the natural environment. As a nature illustrator, Rosalie uses illustration to honor places and creatures that often go unnoticed. I gravitate toward written and oral storytelling, words, and the intimacy of human voice. In this series, we use our complementary skills to highlight the importance of ginseng to Appalachia.
I found my first ginseng plant under the encouraging watch and not-so-subtle hinting of my neighbor Keith. “Colder, colder, oh now you’ re getting warmer, warmer, warmer, hot! Hot! Hot!” Keith is a dedicated “sanger,” trained under the tutelage of Webby, a local legend and ginseng guru. As I asked around my local community for folks who knew about ginseng, many replied, “Oh yeah, I’ve dug ’sang many a year…” I felt left out on a big secret.
Elders were excited to interact with young people interested in the topic, providing a touchpoint of connection with older generations. Ginseng gave me a new appreciation for the elders in my community and their wealth of land-based knowledge.
I spent my summer in the mountains of North Carolina and continued my search for ’sang. Locals insisted, “You’ve got to talk to Jerry. He’s a true mountain man, last of his kind.” And like a true mountain man, Jerry was hard to find. I set up the microphone outside on the patio; he gets claustrophobic indoors. I pulled up a chair for him, but he graciously refused. “I’ll just sit right here,” he said, squatting on the ground, his knees neatly folded into his sides. Jerry was long-limbed and long-winded.
“Did I tell ya I had a pet vole one time?” he asked, midway through the conversation. “Well, I had a tepee on the hill, a big tepee.”
Jerry makes his own moccasins and reads the Bible every day, except for one day when he got food poisoning. He shares a deep connection with the outdoors, but his relationship to ginseng is unique. Ginseng roots his body in the earth beneath him; it’s a reverence that’s almost spiritual. Jerry is a true mountain man, and I sure hope he’s not the last of his kind.
Further north in the Smoky Mountains, ethnobotanist Dr. David Cozzo and tribal horticulturist David Anderson share Jerry’s appreciation of ginseng, as do many tribal members in the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. Although the Cherokee and their lands have endured tremendous adversity, herbalism maintains crucial relevance in their tradition. The Cherokee concept of medicine diverges from our Western understanding. Medicine isn’t just a syrup to swallow; it is a ritual to respect.
“When somebody was digging ginseng, before they dug the plant, they would pray to the mountain and say to the mountain, ‘I’m just taking a little piece of flesh from your side,’” Cozzo explained.
Indigenous traditions are often framed as “things of the past.” Yet reality refutes this illusion. Dedicated tribal members are actively engaged in reclamation of the past, revival of the present, and conservation of the future of ginseng in Cherokee tradition.
The future of ginseng relies on younger generations. Shady Grove Botanicals in central West Virginia offers educational programs to schools around the state, introducing children to ginseng and other forest botanicals. Ed and Carole Daniels founded the Plant-A-Seed program, hoping to inspire younger generations. Shady Grove’s involvement in the community and mission of ethical stewardship reflects a commitment to land and community, the necessary ingredients for conservation in Appalachia and beyond.
Within the past year, ginseng and I have finally had a proper introduction. I gained a deep appreciation for the power of ginseng, both medicinally and culturally. Ginseng represents land-based tradition, intergenerational fellowship, and the reciprocity of land and community.
In our illustrated video series, Rosalie and I amplify the voices of people impacted by ginseng, demonstrating its cultural and environmental relevance in our region and around the world. We’re making the proper introductions, that our audience might meet this man-root and the people he has impacted. A living relationship to the land can be learned; plants and people are perhaps our wisest teachers.
Sisters Clara and Rosalie Haizlett are virtual interns for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Rosalie is a natural history illustrator who is deeply inspired by the outdoors. Clara is the producer of Sandstone Podcast, a multimedia storyteller, and an aspiring forest farmer.