I am not sure how old I was when my grandfather took me ginseng hunting for the first time; I think it was as soon as I was big and strong enough to spend an entire day walking through the woods looking for the plant.
My grandfather followed a simple rule when it came to ginseng: finders keepers; If you saw it, it was yours. Meaning if you found some ginseng, but overlooked a plant, it belonged to the person that saw it. The most vivid example of this rule came into play when I was about 19.
My grandfather contacted a landowner he knew east of Harned, KY and he and I went into the woods on his farm and started hunting ginseng. We hunted the woods for about a week. We kept following this one path into the woods, but did not stop to look for ginseng until we were deeper into the hollow. All week long I kept asking my grandfather why we did not look for ginseng while going into the woods. He kept say it was because people probably looked there. While walking into the woods, I had noticed a likely looking spot and wanted to check it out, but my grandfather wanted us to go deeper into the woods.
On our last day in the woods, on our way back home, I again asked my grandfather about looking for ginseng near the entrance to the hollow. He again said it was no use because people had already looked there. I said, “maybe everyone thinks the same, and no one actually hunts this part of the woods.” I asked him this question as we approached the place I had wanted to check out all week. He was frustrated, but agreed to stop for “just a minute.”
The place I had wanted to check out was a fallen log perpendicular to the walking path, but about 20 to 30 feet off the trail. I started walking along the fallen tree, and at the farthest end of the log I found a large patch of ginseng! It was probably five or six feet across, and consisted of lots of three and four pronged plants. I dropped down and started digging.
There was enough undergrowth that my grandfather could not see me at the other end of the fallen tree, and after a few minutes he called out to me and asked if I was okay. I told him I had found a patch of ginseng. A minute or two later I heard him approaching me, and I kept digging. When he arrived at my location I glanced up at him and told him it was a good thing we had stopped to look along the trail. I noticed he had a funny look on his face, and I thought it was because I was right about looking along the trail and he was perturbed. As I dug the ginseng, I kept moving the stem of this annoying bush in the middle of the patch out of my way.
A minute or two later I heard my grandfather say, “Well, look what I see here!” As I looked up, I saw the stem of the annoying plant in detail, and recognized it as the stem to the biggest ginseng plant I had ever seen. The plant was literally waist tall on me, and the top of the plant was about three feet in diameter. I was actually digging up the other plant in the shade of this plant.
Remember I mentioned my grandfather’s rule earlier. Though I was still digging the plants when he finally recognized the large ginseng plant, I knew there was no way I could claim the plant even though I was digging up its offspring!
When I finished, I stepped back and let my grandfather dig up the root to this plant. The root was about the size of a tennis ball, with four carrot-like projections protruding from the bottom of the root. It is the largest ginseng root I have ever seen.
Prior to digging the root, my grandfather snipped the plant stem off at the ground and carefully set it to the side. He brought it out of the woods with him. When we got home, my grandfather showed the plant to my grandmother, and she asked where he found it. He turned to me and said, “Do you want to tell her?” I replied, “in front of my nose!”
It was at this point that my grandfather said it was also the largest plant he had ever seen, and he had to stare at it for quite awhile before he recognized it. It also explains the funny look on my grandfather’s face: trying to figure out what the plant was when he walked up.
By Ralph Dickerson