Giant ginseng could tip scales at auction
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.
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.