ROCK BRIDGE – Many people comb the woods of southcentral Kentucky in search of ginseng, a plant that looks similar to poison oak, but is a much more desirable find.
The above-ground part of the ginseng – characterized by three prominent and two lesser leaves, with red berries – is not in high demand. Instead, the root is what’s being sought, specifically because it can be sold.
Larry Bowman and his brother, Michael, both of Rock Bridge in Monroe County, are licensed ginseng dealers. They buy and sell it so it can be exported overseas, primarily to China.
“We started, I guess, 50 years ago, or close to it,” Bowman said. “We’ve just now got back into it.”
For several years, the Bowmans bought and sold golden seal or yellow root, which is used in many medicines. They switched from ginseng to yellow root when the price of ginseng was low, but have now resumed dealing ginseng.
According to Anna Lucio, a marketing specialist for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, the sale of ginseng contributed between $8 million and $10 million to Kentucky’s economy in 2010.
Historically, Kentucky has one of the largest wild ginseng programs in the nation, Lucio said. For years, many people – even Daniel Boone – have dug and sold the root in Kentucky.
“That’s what he was doing here; digging ginseng,” Larry Bowman said. “He dug it and traded it with the Indians.”
Ginseng, which is said to improve stamina and increase energy levels, has multiple uses. It is often an ingredient in dietary supplements and is used in some Asian cooking.
“The Chinese, they’ve been using it for 5,000 years,” Bowman said. “I guess they make teas.”
According to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s website, ginseng is harvested from Sept. 1 to Dec. 1. The season for buying green ginseng also starts Sept. 1, but the season for buying dried ginseng starts Sept. 15.
The price of ginseng reflects the economy, Larry Bowman said – as long as the economy is good, the price of ginseng will be high.
“The fresh we bought last year, the way I figured it up, we were paying over a $1,000 a pound, so fresh is a little higher,” Larry Bowman said. “We were pretty busy here last year. I just couldn’t believe how much. I didn’t think there was that much wild (ginseng) out here. We got a world of it last year.”
He predicts the price of ginseng will be well over $900 a pound this year, but the Bowmans won’t know what the opening price will be until the first of the week.
“My buyer will call me the last of this week,” Larry Bowman said Wednesday. “I’ll know by Monday.”
He figures the price will be high because of the weather conditions the country has experienced the past year.
“It’s been drier all over the United States,” he said. “Last year it was wetter. The season just kept going on and on. It stayed green until frost.”
It takes years to grow a good crop of ginseng. Some producers grow what is called “wild-simulated” ginseng, which is planted in conditions mirroring that of wild ginseng.
“A lot of people grow it in the woods,” he said. “It’s a little bit better quality (if grown in the woods). It seems to grow best on a lower northeast hillside.”
Growing ginseng can be time consuming. It must be sprayed for disease and insects, and sometimes producers must ward off deer that tend to eat the leaves. Larry Bowman recommends digging up the entire root.
“The fresh market, particularly, you want the whole root, because if you nick the root, it won’t last as long as the whole root,” he said.
Larry Bowman has grown as much as a half acre of ginseng at a time, but he and his brother mostly buy it for resale now. When the Bowmans are looking to purchase ginseng, they look for aged roots, which feature dark rings.
Most of their customers who bring them fresh or green ginseng are local, but those selling dried ginseng come from all over, Larry Bowman said.
Some people can get rich off ginseng, but Larry Bowman calls what he does a “working hobby.”
“I love it and it’s profitable,” he said.