Gi­ant gin­seng could tip scales at auc­tion

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS AMERICAS - By CHRIS DAVIS in New York chris­davis@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

Mark MacDonald, a FedEx de­liv­ery­man and vol­un­teer fire­man in ru­ral Mary­land, was out with his fa­ther last Septem­ber look­ing for gin­seng roots in western Al­le­gany County. What they found could make history. “It took us an hour and a half to dig it out,” MacDonald told the Cum­ber­land, Mary­land Times-News. “We were real care­ful with it. It was un­be­liev­able. We just kept dig­ging and dig­ging and there was more and more root.”

The mam­moth tu­ber that emerged re­sem­bles a yam on steroids, foot­ball­sized with a long bul­bous neck and hefty legs that dwin­dle down to foot­long roots. It weighs only 1.11 pounds but looks much heav­ier than that. (The big­gest one MacDonald had found up un­til then weighed 1 ounce).

The lower end of the root sys­tem had en­tan­gled it­self in rocks and MacDonald and his dad had to dig a five­foot­hole to gin­gerly ex­tri­cate the roots down to their ten­dril tips with­out dam­ag­ing a sin­gle strand, which would di­min­ish its value.

“We were very lucky there,” MacDonald told West Vir­ginia Metro News. “We man­aged to get it out with al­most no dam­age to the root.”

MacDonald thinks it might be a world’s record and has asked Guin­ness to make the call. (No word yet).

The root was cer­ti­fied by the Mary­land Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, the big­gest ever found in the state and, to ev­ery­one’s knowl­edge, in the US. Its es­ti­mated age is any­where from 60 to 100 years.

He’s been keep­ing it swad­dled in moist moss un­der lock and key with an alarm in an undis­closed lo­ca­tion, for good rea­son.

The ex­perts he’s been talk­ing with tell him the be­he­moth bulb could fetch as much as seven fig­ures when it goes on the block at auc­tion in China next month.

Back in 2008, an­other gin­seng hunter in Mary­land, Roger Welch of Kitzmiller, found what was de­scribed as a “freak­ishly large” gin­seng root that weighed 1 pound even. A Chi­nese buyer called him up and said sim­ply: “Name your price.”

For­est-grown gin­seng sells for about $1,000 per pound, with cul­ti­vated roots go­ing for a frac­tion of that, ac­cord­ing to the Wall Street Jour­nal. US ex­ports of wild gin­seng are ac­tu­ally down from a high of 130,000 pounds in 1992 to around 40,000 pounds to­day, with a whole­sale value of $26.9 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the US Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice.

With in­creased reg­u­la­tions to pro­tect wild gin­seng, the high prices have also spurred a black mar­ket. In po­lice ac­tions rem­i­nis­cent of DEA busts, state nat­u­ral re­source of­fi­cials seize hun­dreds of pounds of wild gin­seng har­vested be­fore the sea­son (or looted from pri­vate farms) and ar­rest “sang hun­ters” armed with pick­axes and of­ten hand­guns, and lots of cash.

In the 19 US states that al­low har­vest­ing of wild gin­seng, hun­ters are re­quired to re­move only ma­ture plants and re­plant the berries. But the vast hunt­ing grounds are im­pos­si­ble to po­lice.

“When they see it, they dig it all,” said Denny Cold­well, a third gen­er­a­tion gin­seng grower in Penn­syl­va­nia. “Doesn’t mat­ter if it’s young, old or in­dif­fer­ent, they just dig it all and wipe it out be­cause they don’t care about any­thing but the dol­lar.”

Gin­seng is val­ued in Tra­di­tional Chi­nese Medicine as a kind of folk version of Prozac, Vi­a­gra, Tums and caf­feine. But there is also a kind of mys­ti­cal com­po­nent to the tu­ber, es­pe­cially when the com­plex of roots sug­gest the torso, head, arms and legs of a hu­man be­ing.

Which is why MacDonald’s 1.11-pounder should fetch more than the mar­ket per-pound price. Rather than cur­ing the ail­ments of a small army, his find will prob­a­bly end up en­shrined on a col­lec­tor’s shelf to be mar­veled at by fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

And it’s lit­tle won­der that de­liv­ery­man/fire­man MacDonald re­cently up­dated his LinkedIn page, adding “gin­seng dealer” to his list of pro­fes­sions.

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF THE CUM­BER­LAND TIMES-NEWS

Gin­seng-hunter Mark MacDonald of LaVale, Mary­land, dis­plays the 1.11-pound root he and his fa­ther found in the wild last Septem­ber. The plant will go on the auc­tion block in China next month and is ex­pected by some ex­perts to fetch in the seven fig­ures.

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