On The Big Mountain With Pawpaw Bill

By Joe Pigmon with Kate Farley

appalachian woodlands
Appalachian woodlands

Those of us who love Appalachian woodland medicinal herbs often hear stories about the men and women who have harvested these plants from the wild for generations. Sometimes these stories blame traditional herb harvesters for the declining abundance of our beloved plants. We hear about diggers who take plants indiscriminately without a care for future generations. Some people think of the many negative assumptions about poor Appalachians and assume that diggers are just lawless poachers trying to feed a drug habit and couldn’t possibly share our deep love for forest ecology.

However, the real story is much more complicated than that. It is true that many diggers harvest irresponsibly. On the other hand, many ginseng diggers are doing their best to be good stewards of the forest, just as their Pawpaw or Grandma or Daddy or Aunt taught them. They use a diverse array of strategies to ensure that their grandchildren’s grandchildren will get to enjoy the thrill of spotting those telltale red ginseng berries in the woods. At the same time, they are watching the destruction of their beloved forests by mountaintop removal mining, clear-cutting, and even recreational development.

The following story was shared with Kate Farley by Joe Pigmon, a ginseng digger from the coalfields of eastern Kentucky. Joe and Kate have worked together to edit this story for content and clarity.

Pawpaw Bill is a great man, an amazing person and a true friend. He’s also one of the most “ginsenging” fellers I ever seen—he’s 60-some years old and still going out and digging pounds of monster ginseng that most harvesters could never find. I wanted to learn from this man, and I’m honored that he became my mentor.

ginseng berries
Ginseng berries (Panax quinquefolius)

I knew Bill for years before I got the chance to go dig some ginseng with him. On one beautiful fall day a few years ago, he took me up the big mountain to find those old-growth mountain monsters. It was one of the greatest rides I’ve ever had in my life because I was finally going to dig ginseng with Bill. As we went up the old winding mountain road, Bill and I talked about different areas to harvest from. I spotted some nice deep hollers that I thought looked like a good area for nice seng. I asked Bill, and he said, “Yeah, there’s a little ginseng I left in there. Should be about time to go check and see if a few are ready to dig. But we have a place we are sure to f nd some nice seng, Joe; it’s always there.” There ain’t a mountain or a holler around Bill ain’t been in. He always left plenty of seng for the future generations to harvest. The road turned from pavement to gravel, washed-out and rough from recent rain. When we finally made it to the top, I looked down at the trees and felt honored to be a part of all that awesomeness.

But the mountains here in eastern Kentucky—or what’s left of them—aren’t what they used to be. From where I was standing, all the mountains far as you could see have had the tops scalped off , as my grandma used to say. Today, there is no mountaintop for several counties surrounding my birthplace in Appalachia. Mountaintop removal is the worst thing ever. Bill told me of the days when the mountains were whole. He told me about the vast forests where he could dig at least two pounds of huge ginseng every day he went up on the mountain, and a person could dig goldenseal for days if he wanted to. I can imagine the heartbreak he went through when he witnessed the mountains being destroyed.

We ended up at an old road cut across the top of the ridge, and Bill told me we’re here. It was just an old logging road and it didn’t look like much of anything was growing there. But Bill knew those woods, and he knew that the remaining patches of wooded areas still had plenty of ginseng for harvesting, with lots of goldenseal to boot if I wanted to dig a little for market or to transplant into my own patch. Bill always said that if I was a smart man, I’d transplant more goldenseal than ginseng, because with proper propagation a man can get a nice return in only five years without having to keep digging it from the wild.

Bill knew there was a big old patch of seng right near that road, and it always grew big ginseng. He kept on talking about that one patch where a man was sure to dig a nice sack of old ginseng. “It will help you get by through the winter—if you don’t want to dig any, you will know where it’s at. Maybe one day you will need it, Joe,” he told me. “I can’t remember exactly where it’s at, but it’s here. If we keep at it, we are sure to get you a good amount to put up and dry.”

American ginseng
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)

As I hiked down the steep mountain slope, I saw the sunlight breaking through the treetops in scattered beams of light slowly evaporating the morning dew, making the thick flora I’m surrounded by look like it is smoking slightly. Deeper I go down the holler towards some old mining breaks above a highwall from an old auger mine from years past. I walked around those woods for two hours, and I found ginseng here and there. There was some nice big seng with all kinds of younger ginseng all around, but no monster patch. This really wasn’t the deep forest—this was just a strip of woods between what was left of the ridge and deep holler below with a side cut where coal had been augured out from underneath. There might have been woods for a quarter mile in one direction and half a mile in the other—and somewhere in there was that patch of ginseng. Not a very big area at all to harvest from. I didn’t think that I’d find that monster seng that Bill kept talking about. Someone had surely beat me to it! I thought it didn’t matter if I did, as it was just special being out there in the woods with Bill.

As I was coming back up a big steep stretch, it was so steep that I was wearing my strength down quick. The little stretch of awesomeness was just perfect, with thick patches of goldenseal, black cohosh, and many other medicinal plants that could be sustainably harvested for many generations to come. A good steward could make it so that the possible future harvest could be a bumper crop! I ran into briar thickets and monster patches of multiflora rose, and I had to push my way through with my trusty mattock.

Finally, close to the road I see a big thick patch of something that kind of looks like a bunch of Jackin- the-pulpit, or Indian turnip as we call it. As I got a little closer, I could see that the leaves were ginseng leaves. They were just so bunched up they had grown every which way. The biggest plant stood maybe thirty-two inches tall, probably taller—I didn’t keep the tops at this time for tea, which is common practice nowadays in our community. The center leaves of the ginseng plant were actually bigger than the size of my hand, and I wear extra-large gloves. That one plant dwarfed the others, and they weren’t anything to be laughed at. They all were monsters, many twenty-four inches tall with lots of fat red berries full of seeds, and I counted forty other three-prong and smaller four-prong plants growing just right there. It was just a shocking experience to see ginseng growing naturally this thick! I have harvested many pounds of seng over the years, and none were growing in such a way as this.

I started excavating. I noticed the soil had lots of sandstone mixed with limestone, which provides nutrients, and the tree canopy was a little thinner than elsewhere in the forest. Those must have been major factors in the growth rate and size of this ginseng.

I started by separating out the smaller roots and putting them to the side so that I could transplant them back, being very, very careful not to damage any of the roots. I thought I’d work my way up to that big monster piece of ginseng, saving the best for last! I noticed each one of those smaller roots was 10 years old or more, even though there’s no real size to them. I only found a few roots that were up to my standards of harvesting— they were 15 years old-plus, and they had a little more weight to them, standard size enough for me to have a high-quality piece of ginseng for sale or personal consumption. But that one mother plant had to be a big one. It had to be a monster piece of ginseng. It was so big the stalk was the size of my pinky. It is very uncommon to find a plant with mass such as this growing naturally.

I started slowly uncovering the root of that big old fat-stalked piece of seng. It had a growth node the size of the tip of my pinky, with a coil as thick as my thumb. It would put another big old top on it the next year and produce a lot of seed. If I had a safe place to transplant it to, it would still be growing to this day, making more mountain monsters. But I wondered why all the other ginseng plants growing around here weren’t this big. They’re ten or fifteen years old, old enough to have some size to them and growing in the same soil as the big one.

I started digging deeper down, following the big old coil on this big piece of ginseng. I was shocked as I started seeing the actual root itself as I removed the dirt from around it. I counted only ten to fifteen years of growth. This root had grown very fast, gaining lots of size quickly. Even though the root weighed more than an ounce, it wasn’t as valuable as a smaller root that had grown slowly. The root itself looked like a piece of cultivated ginseng. It was slick, with very few stress wrinkles or rings you get on wild ginseng. The soil that it was growing in was kind of rocky and loose, and I suspect that bigger root just sucked up all the nutrients and kept the other plants nearby from growing to that size. This big plant did have a nice fat berry pod full of seeds. All those seeds were dropping right below. Nothing had been scattering the berries in the area. That big monster is what produced all those other plants. If only a steward had come through there and removed those berries at the proper time and spread them around that hillside, there probably would have been thousands of pieces of monster ginseng. Bill tried to keep the mountains full of ginseng as best he could. Everyone else wasn’t like Bill. I myself plant several pounds of ginseng seed every year just to ensure the future generations’ harvest to be better than I could ever imagine. I know where that spot is, and I left all those smaller plants.

At the end of the day, we made our way back home from the most amazing harvest I ever had the privilege to be a part of. I had a little over a pound of seng. That’s not common for a couple hours in the mountains. I truly am blessed to have Bill’s guidance! I planted four ounces of woods grown ginseng seed there as well. I haven’t been back there in about four years. In a couple more years, I want to go back there and see what it looks like if someone hasn’t come through there and wiped it out by taking everything. I’m assured by Bill it will be there. “Joe, I have watched this spot for many a year; it’s always been there because no one thinks seng will grow there.” This gives me some comfort knowing our efforts aren’t wasted.

They say that the Cherokee tradition was to take every third plant, no matter if every plant was a monster. That would have been a really good rule of thumb back in their time, when you probably could still dig ten pounds a day by taking only every third plant. Nowadays, people think they won’t make any money if they dig every third plant. This isn’t the way of a select few I know, such as myself, who practice proper stewardship. Sometimes I find patches of ginseng that I just won’t dig. Stewardship and sustainable harvesting are what we need to focus on passing on! This is my goal that I hope to pass on to future generations.

Every year for the past decade I have planted at least a pound of ginseng seeds I purchase or am gifted. One day after I’m long passed away, I hope that someone will walk in the mountains where I have planted all the seeds to harvest more seng in a way that hasn’t been done since the old days. I hope to leave a true patch of ginseng where a person could harvest every third plant in the Cherokee way. I hope someday ginseng will once again be so abundant that it will be possible to harvest ten pounds a day as they did. Even if I’m not there to be a part of the harvest it does not matter, because I know I have done my best to right the wrongs made before my time by past harvesters. I’m glad I had Bill as a mentor to teach me to be a good steward of the land. If we harvest as the Cherokee did, it can sustain us indefinitely

Joe Pigmon is a ginseng digger from Neon, Kentucky. He has worked in many jobs in the area, but his true love is being out in the woods, finding herbs and mushrooms. His goal is to help educate the younger generation about proper stewardship of the Appalachian forest.

Kate Farley is a former United Plant Savers intern and a current doctoral candidate in sociocultural anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. Her dissertation focuses on the culture of medicinal herb harvesting in central and southern Appalachia.