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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Where the Wild Ginseng Grows


Somewhere deep in the heart of Monroe County, WI, the Wild Ginseng grows.  The locations of ginseng and morel mushrooms are carefully guarded secrets of the deep woods in this region.

This spring during our (legitimate) property search we often came across land owners that warned us we had "better not touch (their) morels while we were out looking around!"  With a price tag of $135/lb dried, I can see where folks would be a little protective about their famous fungi.

But even morel prices pale in comparison to the $200-$400/lb price tag of dried ginseng.  Ginseng locations are such carefully guarded secrets I had to be taken blindfolded in a car as they drove around in circles to confuse me.

{Well not really, they kind of figured I was already confused enough and even if they led me right to it, I'd never find it again. And they were right.}

I've heard there is something called "getting your eyes on" when searching for morels.  I think there is something similar to searching for Ginseng.  It seems impossible to find, and you can wander for an hour and turn up empty-handed. But if you're lucky enough to go with someone who knows what they're looking for, and will point the plants out to you, suddenly you'll see the plants appear where previously all you saw was the nameless green undergrowth of a dim forest.

The bright red cluster of small berries on a slim stem are the dead giveaway this time of year.  But don't let the May Apples fool you - they are abundant, and their red berries will certainly catch your eye and fool you into thinking you found something else!

If you see ferns growing, you are in the right type of environment.  Ginseng needs about 70-80% shade to grow well.  You will almost always find ferns where the Wild Ginseng grows, but not always the other way around.  If you're seeing grass, the area is too sunny for ginseng - move along to a shadier area to search.

Once you find one plant (we didn't harvest anything with less than three prongs - there are typically 5 leaflets on each prong) you will likely find more plants in the same area, so look carefully around the plant you found for more.

I was taught to take the red berries and squish out the seeds, burying them slightly under the soil first near the harvested plant, then a little bit farther down as well.  Spread them out a bit.  Give 'em a chance to sprout in more than one location. Since the plant takes time to grow to harvestable size (6-8 years), you don't want to take it all when you harvest an area.  Leave some plants for future harvest as well, and always plant those seeds!

Removing the root can be done carefully with your fingers, brushing the soil from the root and following it carefully into the ground.  It may have several branched rootlets so be carefully not to break those off as you expose the root.  Breaking them off will decrease the roots' value, if you're planning to sell it.

Take your harvested roots and wash them gently, but don't scrub. A little dirt on the growth rings can also add value.  Let them air dry out of direct sunlight.  Small roots may dry in a few days, large ones can take up to three weeks.  Dry them until they just start to snap when they bend enough to break them.  Once dried, keep them in a dry, airy, rodent-proof location until you are ready to use or sell them.

I found a lot of good information here on the Wild Grown website, but most of what I learned just came from following someone around the woods for awhile and having them explain it to me.

If you can find someone that not only knows Where the Wild Ginseng Grows and will take you there to find it, you are doubly blessed.

What have you been foraging for this summer??


Jess said...

Wild asparagus is the only exciting thing I've run across this summer. Although I did find some nightshade yesterday near where my children play... not so excited about that.

Victoria Strauser said...

Ah - that used to grow rampant in the backyard where I used to live. :o(

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