Deerfield, Virginia
Sanctuary Stewards: Shay and Kim Clanton and family

american ginseng walker
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)

Walker Mountain Botanical Sanctuary lies in a hollow between two mountains—Walker Mountain and Sideling Hill. Clayton Mill Creek, a rushing rocky mountain stream, flows the length of the hollow. At the base of the north slope on Sideling Hill there is a small, nearly hidden spring. The mossy hollow above this spring is where the ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) grows. Some of the plants are old and are survivors of deer browsing, land disturbances, and a long tradition of ginseng hunting in these mountains.

On this cold December day on the winter solstice the plants sleep in the dark earth. It is hopeful to imagine all of the green life stirring again, as the days grow longer and the warmth of spring brings all to life. Sadly, many of the ginseng plants that have grown on this land for years, the old ginseng spirits that graced this mountain, will no longer appear in the spring. Last July many of the old as well as very young roots were stolen. Some of the plants grew close to the United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary sign and under no trespassing signs, so the thief was blatantly stealing from our land. Not only were the plants stolen, but they were taken out of season in a time when they would have no chance of reproducing since the seeds ripen much later in the summer.

There is a long tradition of “seng” hunting in these mountains, and ginseng provided extra money to diggers for Christmas and for food in the winter months. Guy Hamilton was a respected local ginseng dealer in Deerfield for a long time. The old diggers, some of whom lived in our house long ago, respected the plant. They dug it in the fall and replanted the berries or part of the root so that the ginseng would continue to flourish and multiply generation after generation. There are still responsible diggers, who care and abide by protective laws (see US Fish and Wildlife Service International Affairs American Ginseng at fws.gov/international/plants/American-ginseng. html), but a Virginia dealer I talked to and other ginseng growers say there is more and more poaching, fueled in part by social media and by TV shows such as “Appalachian Outlaws.” They also say that there is a new breed of ginseng digger that includes people who have no knowledge of or respect for the plants, for private property, or for the law. Drug addiction is often a driving force for the quick money. In Virginia this year a pound of dry quality roots sold for $700 or more.

The theft of the ginseng and the violation of the sanctuary is a deeply felt loss. Each plant had its own distinctive personality and genetics that were an expression of this particular place. One was especially tall with long slender leaves. It had been growing here for a long time. Over the years we have tended the ginseng and planted the ripe seeds near the mother plants. Hopefully some of the off spring will survive. We are pretty certain we know who the poacher is. We have now put up cameras, and we will be especially vigilant next year. There is another species living here, Crotalus horridus, the timber rattlesnake, an ancient Appalachian protective spirit of ginseng. Together we will draw a circle of protection around the plants