The Pursuit of the Root


Jarrod E. Stephens

The Ashland Beacon


   For those of us who live in Kentucky and love the great outdoors, every month seems to bring about a different blessing and bounty that we can pursue and harvest. Beginning on September 1 hunters of a different sort began to go into the woods in search of a quarry that doesn’t require a firearm to harvest. Ginseng digging season begins each year on the first day of September and it offers both young and old the chance to test out their eyes and ability to spot one of the most valuable plants in our region. There are also other valuable roots that can be dug at the same time and once you learn to identify them then you can come out of the woods with your pockets bulging with cash of different sort.

   You may be wondering why a plant would have a season dedicated to its hunting and harvest. It all has to do with the fact that some irresponsible and unethical hunters began to abuse the plant and hunted it to the point where it was disappearing quicker than it could reproduce. By September most mature ginseng plant’s berries have ripened and are ready to fall to the forest floor to begin a new generation of the plant. When a ginseng hunter finds a plant with berries on it, the berries are to be planted within 25 feet of the parent plant. It is important to note that you do not dig a hole and cover the berries. Instead you simply rake back the leaf matter and cover them with it. In the natural world the seeds simply fall to the forest floor and rely on natural occurrences to get it in contact with the soil. Covering the seeds with soil will cause them to rot.

   For a ginseng plant to be legal it must be at least five years old. The quickest way to know if a plant is old enough to harvest is to pay attention to the number of forks or “prongs” that the stem has. Typically, if a ginseng plant has at least three prongs then it has reached the age of five years. However, to keep from removing roots that still have a lot of growing to do, don’t completely dig a root that upon first appearance is quite small no matter its age. Ginseng hunting is a way of life and ethical hunters will do everything in their power to preserve the plant for the next generation.

   Aside from ginseng there are other valuable roots that coexist and grow alongside the ginseng plant and can be harvested too. One of the more common roots to be dug in our area is yellowroot or goldenseal. While yellowroot is not as valuable as the ginseng, you can dig a lot in a short period of time and at $40+ per pound it can add up quickly. Unlike the ginseng root, yellowroot is spidery with a large tap root and many support roots. You can also dry the tops to sell.

   Another root that I just learned to identify last season and is even more valuable than yellowroot is white snakeroot. White snakeroot bears a crown of white flowers and grows in areas where yellowroot is found. It can also be found in open areas, pastures and alongside roads and fields. The root has a spidery look to it and when dried it smells like mint. Despite its value the plant played a tragic roll in our history as Kentuckians. It is believed that Abraham Lincoln’s mother died after drinking milk that had been contaminated because the milk cow had ingested the plant. Some other lesser known plant roots that can be dug are black cohosh, bloodroot, and wild yam.

   Root digging is a great way to spend time in the woods while having the opportunity to earn some money. To find out what the current prices are for each specie of root you can contact the licensed dealers in our area. Epp David Kiser is located in Carter County and can be reached at 606.316.6681. Jason Anders from Boyd County can be reached at 606.571.8108. If you are looking for a new hobby or excuse to get outdoors, find a seasoned hunter and tag along as they go digging and you can turn your time into money. There are numerous plant identification guides and web resources that can help you identify each of these plants if you are unsure what to look for. Get out and get digging and take a kid along with you. We all know they love to play in the dirt.