The Dirt on Ohio’s Green Gold

The average person has no idea ginseng grows wild in Ohio’s woodlands, but it has long been considered the green gold that helps the rural economy here while fueling high demand in Asia.

There’s a group of people with paper and plastic bags gathered on the front porch of Woodland Outdoor & Supply near Tippecanoe, Ohio, when Brad Castle pulls up in his green sedan.

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“Sorry I’m late,” he says while extracting a folding table, scale, and plastic bins from the car. In less than five minutes, he has positioned himself between the hunting bows and greeting cards inside the store, ready to conduct business. One by one, each person steps up to the table and overturns his or her bag’s contents into a box on the scale. American ginseng, one of the world’s most valuable plants, spills out.

After picking through the pile of gnarly roots, Castle—one of 46 licensed ginseng dealers in Ohio for the 2013–14 season—makes an offer based on the weight and size of the pieces inside. “You have some pencils in here,” he says to one man, referring to the smaller pieces of ginseng that aren’t worth as much as larger, thumb-sized roots. “This is beautiful stuff, but it’s a little on the small size. How about we make it $300 even?”

When the man agrees, he pulls out a wad of cash he keeps tucked in his khaki pants next to a loaded pistol to prevent potential thieves from “trying anything funny.”

“Have you seen the new hundreds yet?” says Castle as he counts out the crisp bills. “They kind of look like monopoly money.” After some more small talk, the man pockets his “Christmas money” and wanders off to look for a new hunting bow, while another person steps up to the table. By the end of the night, Castle has doled out more than $13,000—a large sum of it to a camouflage-outfitted fellow with more than 10 pounds of “green gold,” one of the many nicknames given to the valuable root.

Wild ginseng is native to Ohio, as well as other parts of the eastern United States, but it’s not something you’ll find at the local farmers market. Instead, most of it ends up in the Far East, where it has been prized for its medicinal properties for thousands of years.

“A lot of it goes to Hong Kong,” says Melissa Moser, a researcher for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Division of Wildlife, who monitors the state’s ginseng harvest and the amount bought and sold each year. “The ginseng in China was wiped out, so they came here looking for it.”

For many, ginseng is the go-to remedy for increasing energy, reducing stress, curing hypertension, and improving sex lives—it’s a well-known aphrodisiac. In one study undertaken at the University of Ulsan College of Medicine in Seoul, Korea, researchers concluded that ginseng improves stamina in the bedroom after testing the impact of the root on 45 men with erectile dysfunction.

With results like that, it is no wonder the native plant population in China has been over-harvested to near extinction. While ginseng is cultivated in parts of Asia today, the American variety, known as Panax quinqueflius, commands the highest prices and offers hefty payouts for those who know where and how to find it locally. According to Moser, wild ginseng can fetch anywhere from $300 to $1,500 per pound of dried root depending on the quality and market fluctuations. Castle says he started out the 2013 season paying $700 per pound, but the current rate has risen to around $875.

Since the 18th century, generations of ginseng hunters have wandered the forested regions of the eastern states in search of the perennial herb with its telltale red berries and five-leaf prongs. The famous explorer Daniel Boone may have been best known for fur trapping, but he made a fortune trading ginseng. Tales of his exploits abound in the Ohio River Valley, including the legend that he lost 12 tons of ginseng when his boat overturned in a river in 1788 on the way to Pittsburgh.

The national ginseng trade reached its peak in 1862 when more than 750,000 pounds of wild ginseng plants were collected at a price of 42 cents a pound and exported overseas. While ginseng remains an important part of the informal economy in rural Ohio, it landed on the same endangered species list as rhinoceros horn and elephant tusk in 1975 after years of decline due to overharvesting, deforestation—and poaching.

Since 1999, the ODNR Division of Wildlife has been tasked with enforcing the federal laws enacted to protect the plant. While anyone can go out and dig during the recognized season—September 1 to December 31—those who plan to export it must have a dealer’s license and have all ginseng certified before it leaves the state.

“Considering that you’re not allowed to dig it on state property and that you need the landowner’s permission to dig,” says Moser, “it’s hard to come across the stuff legally.”

Last May, ginseng gained local notoriety when an Ohio man was shot and killed while digging ginseng on private land without permission. The landowner, 78-year-old Joseph Kutter of New Paris, claimed he fatally shot Bobby Jo Grubbs with an AK-47 in self-defense. However, Kutter failed to notify police, who eventually found the body hidden in a mulch pile with the help of cadaver dogs. While the jury deadlocked on the count of murder, Kutter was found guilty of tampering with evidence and gross abuse of a corpse.

Castle, who works in law enforcement, acknowledges that Kutter’s actions may have been wrong because Ohio law doesn’t allow the use of lethal force to protect property. However, it’s just as plausible that he was defending himself legally.

“Arguably it is completely reasonable for a 78-year-old man, confronted by a much younger man who is engaged in illegal activity and who threatens him—possibly with some type of weapon, such as a digging tool—to repel such threat by way of deadly force,” says Castle, between ginseng transactions. “I don’t want to shoot anybody over anything, but it’s unreasonable to go into the woods without a firearm, especially when you’re in a remote location. We have moonshine, meth labs, and marijuana out there, too.”

Castle, who also grows and gathers ginseng himself, prefers to stay on the right side of the law, although he acknowledges it’s hard to “police it all.” It comes down to educating the people with whom he does business, making sure they understand the best practices for ginseng harvesting.

“I think a lot of diggers are unfairly characterized as takers,” says Castle. “But the rules are relatively new and, for many people, ginseng hunting is a tradition that’s been passed down through the generations.”

Diggers and dealers stand to make a lot of money as long as the ginseng population remains healthy. Planting the seeds of harvested plants is one such way to ensure the prized root and the ginseng trade in Ohio continue to thrive.

“The goal for me is to be a steward,” says Castle. “You want more ginseng to grow because you’ve been there.”

Interested in learning more about the Ohio ginseng trade? You can call 800.WILDLIFE or visit DNR.State.oh.us for more information.