Author: Daniel, Bert


Most people know what ginseng is. Itís an herb, prized for centuries by the Chinese and you see it all the time these days as an ingredient in tea, energy drinks and cold remedies. What many people do not know is that ginseng grows all over the northern hemisphere, including America. In fact, the United States has been exporting ginseng to China since about 1860. It was one of Minnesotaís first cash crops.

If youíve been to a lot of bluegrass jams you may have heard a song called Ginseng Sullivan. Itís been covered by the band Phish so a lot of people have heard it from all walks of music, not just Bluegrass and old time. You donít hear the song called very much these days but Iíve heard it done a couple of times over the last ten years or so. Itís a song about a poor fellow who makes a meager living by digging ginseng. Heís trying to make enough money to move back to his native Mississippi delta from the cold hills of north Georgia. Norman Blake wrote a lot of great songs and that song has always been one of my favorites. But I always thought it was strange that the song was about ginseng, this obscure herb that nobody would care about if not for the Chinese.

Itís been more than forty years since Norman wrote that song. A lot has changed since then. Wild ginseng from Asia has been harvested to near extinction and wild ginseng from the U.S. can fetch as high as $1000 per pound. If Mr. Sullivan is alive today, Iíll bet heís really enjoying life in the Mississippi delta.

Ginseng can be grown commercially and the biggest producing U.S. state today is Wisconsin. But it takes a lot of work to get the product established and about ten years for an investment to show a profit. Sort of like what they say about the wine business here in Sonoma county. If you want to make a small fortune, start with a large fortune. Commercially grown ginseng only fetches about $35 per pound.

Wild ginseng is where the easy money is. Anybody can walk out in the woods and look for a plant that resembles a Virginia creeper crossed with poison ivy. The root has a flesh-colored branching form that looks almost human. And because itís on this side of the ocean, Chinese medicine traditionalists value the yin of American ginseng as a way of balancing the yang of their own over-harvested root.

After walking deep into the woods, you make sure the coast is clear (most states issue permits and fines are steep). If nobody is looking you scratch the earth for that precious root and fill your tote sack. Wash the dirt off your hands so nobody is the wiser and calmly make your escape.

When times are tough people will do almost anything to get by. Ginseng is becoming scarcer and scarcer in this country due to over harvesting. A few areas now have conservation programs going which encourage people to plant the seeds which once flourished from Maine to Georgia and from Ohio throughout the midwest.

Now the winters here they get too cold, so damp it makes me ill
Canít dig no roots in the mountain side, the groundís froze hard and still
You gotta wait at the foot of the hill
By next summer things turn right, the companies will pay high
Iíll make enough money to pay these bills and bid these mountains goodbye
Then he said with a sigh:

Itís a long way from the delta from the north Georgia hills
And a tote sack full of ginseng wonít pay no traveling bills
And Iím too old to ride the rails or thumb the road alone
Well I guess Iíll never make it back to home
My muddy water Mississippi delta home

Bon voyage Mr. Sullivan. Save some ginseng for me.
Posted:  2/17/2014

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