Digging Wild Ginseng
In the last year or so, we have noticed a lot of ginseng being damaged when it is harvested. Sure, occasionally even the most careful digger will break a root or hit a root with a digging tool. However, the odds of this can be stacked in our favor by following some very simple steps.
I know some folks like to use screwdrivers and such to dig ginseng, but I prefer the standard trapper's trowel. As a dealer, I can normally tell if a digger is using a screwdriver by the increased amount of damage to the roots. The trowel I normally use is one of the small YoHo trowels. I think the YoHo company went out of business some time ago, but a quick Google search will turn up some standard trapper's trowels that will work nicely.
First, when we find a plant we want to dig, we need to look around to be sure there are no younger plants which we might injure if we don't take care to protect them.
Notice the small seedling under this mature plant.
Remove all the ground litter so we can get a good idea of where the stem comes out of the ground. At this point, I often snap the top off and either bury it nearby or keep it for some friends who make tea with the tops I find. (I left this one on for a while).
Now, start to loosen the dirt well away from the place where the ginseng stem comes out of the ground. We don't know which way the root runs yet, and we don't want to damage it. So, push in your trowel and gently pry up just enough to start to loosen the soil.
Next, we start to remove some of the dirt with our hands (don't use your trowel here) at the edge of the loosened area.
Eventually, we carefully work our way into the stem until we expose the neck of the ginseng root. Notice all of the other roots we have uncovered without damaging them with our digging tool?
Keep working the loosened dirt away from the neck a little at a time until you start to uncover the root and can see which direction it runs. This is a very important part of digging wild ginseng. The roots can do many different things and go in many different directions. It is important that we take our time and gently uncover the roots.
Continue to work the loosened soil away from the root of the ginseng plant. Never try to pry or pull the root out of the ground. Instead, gently loosen the soil around it, uncover it, and then gently slip it out of the ground without forcing it. If anything sticks, you need to loosen more dirt out around the root. Notice a couple more tubers have come into view.
Two more tubers are uncovered going in different directions
Finally, the whole ginseng root is loose and can be gently lifted from the soil. Notice all the fine roots are intact and not broken off from trying to force the root out of the ground with the digging tool.
We need to bring the highest quality roots to the market. Ginseng -especially wild ginseng- is very slow growing. Once we take that plant, it won't get any bigger. We need to be sure we only harbest high quality roots and carefully dig them to avoid damage. Damaged roots reduces their value to about 30% of what they might otherwise be.
The following set of pictures shows the same process described above. This root has a very long, fine root growing just under the surface of the ground, and a tap root which grows straight down.
I guess I should mention that these plants were started from seeds I planted, and these are woods grown plants. These are considered a form of cultivated ginseng here in Ohio. I wanted to move them to a new location where I can use them for pictures next year.
Update November 2016
One of the things I've been seeing as a ginseng buyer is that folks don't know when they should leave a plant alone. Ginseng is bought and sold based on the quality of the roots underground -not the size of the plant above ground. Every time you dig a root and add it to your collection, you either increase -or decrease- the value of that collection overall. This is important to keep in mind.
The next thing is when someone brings me small roots they always tell me how big the top was and once they dug the root it was too late to put it back, or they say "Well, it was a three-prong so it was legal." We have got to rid ourselves of this type attitude and adopt an attitude of stewardship. I've planted many small roots when the digger has told me they only dig three-prong plants only to have them come up as small two-prongs the next spring. Just because a plant is legal doesn't mean you should dig it! I'll go a step farther and tell you if it doesn't increase the value of your collection, you should leave it in the ground.
Someone is reading this and asking how we know what the root looks like before we dig it. Two major points there. First, if you are digging properly and carefully, you will see the general shape and size of the root before it is dislodged completely. If it is not a mature marketable root -or even just a root with poor shape quality such as long and thin or just very small- cover it back up and leave it to make seed! Secondly, if you do completely dig a root and find it is not desirable for the market, you can replant it. Do so carefully and lay the fine roots out completely.
If we want prices to go back up, we must start being higher quality product to the market. Damaging a root is normally caused by carelessness, haste, and improper digging tools (read screwdriver). Small roots or roots which are poor shape are worth more being left in the ground to make more seed.
Very soon we will all be required to only dig roots of a certain age. This will require us to loosen the soil around the top of the root and visually inspect the neck to see if it possesses the required number of age rings. So, get in the habit of loosening the soil a little and getting that first glimpse of the root before going whole hog and digging it out.