A weekend excursion to Ohio
My column last week about ginseng elicited more emails than any column I have written in many years. I am delighted to see such interest in my favorite plant and my lifelong passion. Last week I went to Southeastern Ohio to visit some friends and present a workshop about ginseng for the United Plant Savers fall interns, at the UPS headquarters, which is near Athens, Ohio. I also got to go on a ginseng hunt with some close friends.
Although I was away from here only six days, I was pleased upon my return to see that we are finally getting some fall colors in our woods. Normally, our peak fall coloration is the weekend closest to Oct.10, but at my house in Conesville, I would guess that the surrounding forest is only 50 percent of peak color right now. There are lots of fallen leaves though due to the leaf shedding diseases we experienced in midsummer, when it rained every day for about three weeks. Still, there are still plenty of beautiful colors in the woods to observe as we enter the last two weeks of the month.
While I was in Ohio, I went ginseng hunting at a National Forest. This forest is one of the few public lands in the U.S., where small quantities of ginseng may be legally harvested after buying a permit. In New York State there is no legal harvest of wild ginseng on any state, federal, or other publically owned lands that I am aware of. The $20 ginseng permit I purchased allows the digger to harvest up to 95 roots during the legal harvest season, which runs from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31. Ohio roots from that part of the state average about 300 per dry pound, so that allows for about 1/3 pound dry weight.
The Ohio woods were somewhat strange to me. That part of the country was never glaciated, so the diversity of plant life far surpasses ours. Most, but not all of the tree species were familiar. There were huge red and white oaks as well as black walnut, some butternut, massive tulip poplar with 3-foot diameter trunks, sycamore, a lot of dying white ash (due to Emerald Ash Borer), several species of hickory, sugar maple, magnolia, beech (no sign of beech bark disease) and Buckeye in the upper canopy. The sound of falling nuts all around me was constant and I was half expecting to get conked on the head by an acorn, buckeye or hickory nut at any time, hopefully not a black walnut!
There was lots of spicebush and pawpaws as well as far too many bramble thickets to please me. Multiflora rose ripped my bare arms and Japanese stiltgrass invaded down the hollows from the ubiquitous ATV trails. There were also a lot of plants I don’t know, both on the ground and growing as shrubs. There were big patches of goldenseal everywhere, as well as giant bloodroot, wild ginger, maidenhair fern, both blue and black cohosh, stinging nettle, pokeweed, and a handful of other plants associated with northern ginseng habitat, that I do know. Almost growing as a ground cover, there was lots of water weed, clearweed and a goldenseal look-alike that I forgot the name of. The diversity of flora was amazing and perhaps that kept my eye from spotting the ginseng my companions all seemed to see instantly from far off. I was having a very hard time finding any ginseng at all.
After a few hours of hiking, the sky darkened ominously, as big clouds rolled in, but with that dramatic change of light, so did my perception of the forest floor change. The ginseng plants took on a yellow “glow” in that twilight that I have come to recognize, usually as the day ends and I am hustling to get out of the woods before darkness falls. I started seeing ginseng almost everywhere I looked, as if my eyes had a cloak removed. Folklore regarding ginseng is that the plant “glows” due to some sort of radioactivity. I think I surely does appear to glow under certain light conditions, but that may be due to phosphorus metabolism and not radioactivity.
After a 10 hour, 6-plusmile hiking day in the forest, I ended up with a dozen or so small ginseng roots, my companions had 20 or 30 each, although I was pleased to notice that they left behind far more than they dug. The roots are certainly not worth much money, certainly less than my permit cost, but the experience was priceless.