The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition’s focus on Appalachian culture leads us to shine a light on things that are not so obvious to people outside the Appalachian communities. This includes features of Appalachian culture that were transported from the mountains to the cities like traditional healing and folk medicine. The ecosystem surrounding greater Cincinnati supports many of the same plants and herbs that had become central to Appalachian folk life. Thus, even after the transition to urban life, people continued to head out into the woods and fields to forage and hunt for native plants used in traditional medicine. The gold of Appalachian folk medicine is ginseng.

The Appalachian region is one of the most ecologically diverse regions in the entire world. This ecological diversity makes it possible for micro-ecosystems to proliferate and support plant species unique to specific areas. This same ecological diversity also makes for the biodiversity that supports a large number of medicinal plants and herbs. The indisputable king of Appalachia’s medicinal plants and herbs is ginseng. So central to the culture of Appalachia, that ginseng eventually made its way to China and ultimately became yet another Appalachian resource for big business to exploit. There are still ginseng hunters in Appalachia, and ginseng is also native to southern Ohio.

Early Appalachians learned about ginseng and its medicinal benefits from indigenous people. The root of Panax quinquefolius, distinct from its Chinese cousin, Panax ginseng, has been a central part of the indigenous pharmacopeia for centuries. Early settlers to the Appalachian region learned of ginseng’s benefits, which include pain relief, blood clotting properties, and even natural antibiotic effects, from the indigenous peoples. The scientific name, “panax,” means panacea, or cure-all. What Appalachians came to know is that ginseng is good for what ails you, and hunting for ginseng became an integral part of Appalachian life and culture. An article on ginseng from Expatalachians explains that in Appalachian slang, a person who hunts ginseng is called a “sanger,” and it is probably important to know that sangers do no forage or pick ginseng, they hunt ginseng.   

Historically, ginseng was used to treat all manner of ailments. The science of the benefits of ginseng is a little more obscure. While people take ginseng to decrease stress and increase energy, it is believed to help fight cancer. This last claim is debatable, but there are currently medical studies to explore the potential for ginseng for reducing the risk of certain types of cancer. Ginseng has been clinically shown to contain high levels of antioxidants which reduce inflammation—the cause of conditions like some types of arthritis. Ginseng is also thought to help increase sexual potency. The validity of the various health claims for ginseng may be up for discussion, but medical science appears to be validating many of these claims.

In Appalachia, “sanging” on undeveloped land was part of providing for family and community, but over time, the benefits of ginseng became known beyond the mountains. This led to a growing demand for ginseng, a demand the corporate America was happy to cash in on. By the end of the 19th Century, demand for ginseng had grown to such point that major botanical medicine suppliers like Wallace Brothers of North Carolina were buying ginseng from over 40,000 people in western North Carolina alone. The market for ginseng spread across the country, and Calvin Cowles shipped his product as far north as New York City and even to Cincinnati. Chinese ginseng had been harvested to near extinction and was partially re-populated by Appalachian ginseng. The Lloyd Library in Cincinnati maintains a collection of The Ginseng Journal and Golden Seal Bulletin, a scholarly and trade publication dedicated to the study of ginseng and golden seal, another native Appalachian medicinal herb. The existence of such a publication would indicate the significance of ginseng beyond regional folk medicine.

Even as the demand for ginseng grew, and the money to be made from ginseng bloomed, attitudes toward Appalachian ginseng hunters were typically ignorant. They were cast as tribal and primitive people who retained some kind of natural relationship to the land that had been lost by “civilized” people. While corporate giants were content to exploit yet another Appalachian resource, they were just as content to exploit the people who brought them their gold. Exploitation of the natural herb also led to its decline as more and more people sought to cash in on what grew so readily around the region. Over-hunting and the general denuding of the land by extraction industries have left ginseng elusive and rare.

We reached out to longtime sanger, Larry Wilson for advice on environmentally conscious harvesting. We know Larry from our days working with him on environmental justice issues: Larry and his wife Sheila were strong and effective advocates for their home community of Yellow Creek, Kentucky during the days of the Urban Appalachian Council’s Lower Price Hill Environmental Project. Larry told us, “I learned to ginseng hunt a long, long time ago and still love it. My dad and uncles taught me to never harvest an immature plant. To be harvested a plant should have three or more prongs and a bloom pod. Never dig a plant unless it’s berries (seeds) are red. Always remove the seeds and place them back in the ground from which the plant was dug and cover with dirt, but not quite as deep as the original roots. That’s about it; simple common sense. If everyone practiced this, the plant would be plentiful.”

Today, ginseng hunters in Ohio bring in over 4000 pounds of the wild root. Hunting ginseng is regulated by the state of Ohio. Other states also regulate ginseng hunting. Poaching, of course, remains a problem as people hunt on nature preserves and other areas where ginseng is easy to find. In Ohio, the ginseng season runs from September 1- December 31. The best places to hunt ginseng are in Adams, Pike, Perry, Ross, and Athens Counties, but ginseng is found in the surrounding Cincinnati area. A guide to Ohio ginseng can be found on the State of Ohio website. 

Local “sangers” still head out to hunt ginseng. The traditional rhizome can be found in herbalist shops that are becoming increasingly popular. Locally, you can find ginseng at Saigon Market in Findlay Market. If you pay attention, you are likely to find people selling it from tables at flea markets. One of things the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition likes to emphasize is how Appalachian culture has helped re-shape the urban cultures. The presence of ginseng is one way that Appalachians brought traditional practices to urban life and left their mark on the ways people live. The benefits of ginseng are now widely known, and medical science has begun to support some of the age-old beliefs about ginseng. 

The United States Forest Service provides an online pdf of medicinal plants native to Appalachia. That link can be found here:

A guide to ginseng and hunting ginseng can be found at this link:

Klimas, Alena. “The Promise and Predicament of Ginseng in Appalachia.

Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.

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