Ginseng: The Sang Diggers from 1901

Article reprinted from Hunters and Trappers Guide (ninth edition) by W.J. Burnett, Minneapolis, Minnesota, circa 1901. This gives us a historical perspective of the "Sang" hunters and the value of ginseng from early America. Note that the original English text and expressions are reproduced in original form.

Hunters Guide


The plant was discovered in North America near Montreal, by Father Lofitau, a Jesuit Missionary to the Iroquois Indians in 1716, and in 1751 it was discovered in Central New York and Vermont. Since then the export trade to China has been steady and continuous with but slight interruption. The supply was first obtained from Canada, but as it became exhausted there the "Sang" diggers pushed on until in almost 2000 years they have located every piece of woods in North America in which ginseng grows, and have practically exterminated the wild plant. In the early days of its exportation the price paid was very low. being only 52 cents per pound in 1858, while in 1901 dry roots were worth $7.00 per pound and cultivated roots, $9.00.

There are many reports as to what the Chinese do with it, which are given as strictly reliable, the most common report being that they use it for medicine, it being considered by them a cure-all for every disease that human flesh is heir to. It is credited in this country with but little medicinal value, and that the Chinese faith rests largely on fanciful grounds is evident from their preferring roots that resemble the human form. Such roots sell for fabulous prices. The roots that resemble the human form are rare, but are sometimes found.

Description Of The Plant

The wild ginseng plant is easily recognized. The main stem rises from 8 to 14 inches above the ground and then divides into three branches, but sometimes four, and in the cultivated roots five branches are not uncommon, Each perfect branch has five thin leaves, two on each side of the branch and one at the end.

The first pair of leaves is from 1 to 2 inches long. The others 3 to 4 inches. They are egg-shaped with the broad end away from the stem sharply pointed, and the edges are notched like a saw. The stem continues above the branches in a flower stalk 2 to 4 inches long, that bears a cluster of small yellowish-green flowers in July. This is followed by the berries, which are a bright green at first, gradually turning red and then scarlet when it is fully ripe. The berries are edible and have the taste of the root. The top dies down soon after the seeds are ripe.

The root is composed of two parts, the root stalk and the root. The root is from .25 to 1.5 inches in diameter and 2 to 10 inches long. The stalk is from .5 inch on a young root to 2 inches on an old root. The bud for next year's growth starts in August by the side of the stem that is growing. When the stalk dies down it leaves a scar, so that the age of a ginseng root can be easily told by counting the scars.

The Cultivation Of Ginseng

Much interest has of late been shown in ginseng. The high price the dried roots command, coupled with a never-failing demand for them,and the further fact that it is fast becoming extinct in a wild state all combine to render the question of its cultivation a practical one. Ginseng (Araliaquinquefolia) may be found in nearly every state in the Union, east of the Rocky mountains. It delights in the rich, shady soil of hardwood forests, and usually makes its appearance about the middle of spring. It develops rapidly, and, when fully expanded, forms a most beautiful plant, although there is nothing striking in its small. white inodorous flowers. A three-year-old plant is from eight to 12 inches high, according to location and soil, and has from three to five leaves rising on long foot stalks from the top of the stem. Each leaf is composed of five leaflets, the largest forming the point of the leaf. The flowerhead is on a short stem rising from the axis of the leaves, and the, bloom appears in July. The fruit, which ripens in September, is a scarlet berry one-eighth of an inch in diameter, and has imbedded in its fleshy pulp three round, hard seeds. After the first sharp frost of autumn all the plant above ground dies.

Old Ginseng Illustration

The first step toward the cultivation of ginseng is in selecting a location for the beds. As the plant cannot endure the summer sunshine, it is essential that the beds be well shaded. If they are situated in open ground, light, movable awnings may be placed over them, which should be removed at night, and during rainy or cloudy weather. The most favorable location, however, is in the forest, the natural home of the plant. A corner in an old, shady orchard would serve quite as well, and the writer has known ginseng to be grown with fair success, in boxes placed under the shelves of a florist's green house. The soil should be loamy, and enriched cacti spring with leaf mold, or other natural fertilizer. During the growing season the soil should be stirred occasionally and kept free of weeds. The amount of moisture required for the growth of this plant is greater than is needed for ordinary field plants; and if the beds are located in a garden or field, where the earth's moisture is rapidly evaporated by the sun, the deficiency of water must be supplied. As ginseng seeds are not readily obtained in our market, and, besides, require a long time to germinate, the experience of the writer, as well as of others, favors the stocking of new beds with plants gathered in the forest. This may require some laborious searching, but a better knowledge of the habits of the plant could not be gained in any other way.

The transplanting of wild ginseng may begin in the spring, as soon as the plants have fully expanded. They must be handled with extreme care during this removal, as all parts of the plant, and the roots especially, are tender, and easily injured. They should be planted ten inches apart in rows twelve inches apart, and the roots placed in the soil at least as deep as when found in the forest, which is plainly indicated on the base of the leaf stem. The plant may be transplanted at any age. The writer has transplanted them when the root was no larger than an oat grain, and again when the plant was five or six years old, and bearing four or five leaves.

The plant makes slow progress the first year, but after that it becomes thrifty under favorable circumstances, and will bear seed when three years old. A plant four or five years old should produce a root weighing two pounds, which is large enough for market. As soon as the plants begin to bear fruit, the seed should be looked after.

The time to gather seed is in the autumn, before the flesh has dried from around them. They must be placed in the soil at once, and at least two inches deep. Here they remain for eighteen months before beginning to germinate. No amount of coaxing will induce them to start sooner, although it is best to keep them through the winter in loose, rich soil in boxes, in a condition favorable to generation. In the spring they may be sown in the beds, in rows about the same distance apart as transplanting, or they may be sown more thickly, and afterwards transplanted. In the following spring the plant makes it appearance the close of the first summer the seedlings will have one small leaf of five leaflets, and, if healthy, will bear seed of its own in three years. It is difficult to state, as yet, to what extent ginseng should be grown to make it a profitable crop. A half-acre of ground would certainly be all the space desired for growing on an average scale. The half or fourth of that space would be as much as one man could well attend to as an experiment.

Although the writer has grown the plant more for studying the habits than for profit, he has demonstrated to his satisfaction that ginseng can be successfully cultivated, and with less trouble and work than is experienced with many other crops that are far less remunerative. In gathering the root for market, too much care cannot be used in renovating [sic] them from the earth. They are tender and fleshy, and should be taken out whole, and the adhering soil removed with a brush. The "Sang Diggers" usually cleanse them with water, which retards their drying, and it is claimed by exporters that this method of cleansing renders them spongy, and lessens their market value. They should be dried in the sunshine or by moderate artificial heat. The time to gather the roots is in autumn, after the fruit has matured; and each root should weigh at least two ounces before drying, as it is not profitable to prepare roots of less weight for market.

(A note from the publisher at end of article) "We don't agree with the writer. We prefer washed roots. N.W.H.&F. Co." —Booklet and article submitted by Marty Schmitz, Torrance, CA.

Reprinted from the Summer 2000 issue of Qi Journal