Presented at the American Society for Environmental History

Chicago, IL, March 30-April 1, 2017

Since the early twentieth century, popular and scholarly writers have constructed a particular narrative to explain the rise of ginseng cultivation in the United States.  It was a progressive narrative that can be briefly summarized as follows:  for more than a century after a lucrative trade in ginseng developed between the U.S. and China, American agriculturists could not unlock the secrets of artificial ginseng cultivation.  Consequently, the trade was supplied entirely by people who harvested the plant from the so-called “wild,” or, rather, its natural habitat.  In the 1890s, a group of progressive farmers and horticulturists began experimenting with artificial cultivation, and within two decades, due to their dedication to scientific methods and cooperative spirit, as well as their capital investments, the plant had been tamed and ginseng cultivation developed into a full-blown craze.  Ginseng gardens popped up in the Ohio Valley and Appalachian region like mushrooms after a spring rain.  Reports circulated of farmers clearing $10,000 a year on less than an acre of land.  This is the progressive narrative of the triumph of ginseng cultivation.[1]  It was a problem of agroecology solved by scientific agriculture.

If we look a little closer, however, it becomes clear that this narrative glosses over, if not outright ignores, the social dynamics of ginseng reform.  Indeed, if we want to understand the triumph of ginseng cultivation, we must consider how relationships between human communities, ginseng, and forests changed over time.  Cultivation was a social process, as much as an agroecological one.  It involved a reorientation of nature and culture that had important social implications for the people in ginseng country.

The effort to cultivate ginseng stretches back to the colonial era.  The Royal Society of London, which included some of the most prominent physicians, botanists and gardeners in the Western world, gave the plant considerable attention in the 18th century.  After a lucrative trade was established with China, where it sold for its weight in silver, people like William Byrd, John Bartram, Peter Collinson, Humphrey Marshall, and Joseph Banks began a concerted effort to pluck ginseng from its native habitat and cultivate it in extensive gardens.  However, a ginseng growing industry failed to thrive in either the colonies or in Europe.  This seems to have been primarily an agroecological problem.  In a letter to one of his Royal Society friends, William Byrd reported that “I have sowed seeds of it, but it never came up.  Providence I sopose has ordered it thus, lest so great a blessing should be too common.”[2]

There is little wonder why Byrd could not raise ginseng on his plantation on the Virginia peninsula.  We now know that its growing conditions are particular.  It requires soil that is moist but well-drained, preferably sandy loam, with a pH of 5.5 or better.  It needs at least 65% shade and temperatures that rarely exceed 80 degrees.  To germinate, its seeds need at least 45 days of low temperatures at or below 36 degrees.

But why was it not cultivated by the people who harvested it in the mountains of West Virginia or New York, who knew its growing conditions well?  For more than a century and a half after Byrd’s experiments, there is no evidence that anyone successfully cultivated the plant anywhere in North America. It was harvested entirely from its native habitat by people on the capitalist peripheries.  But why?  It was not for lack of knowledge of its growing conditions.  Generations of harvesting the plant gave mountain people intimate knowledge of ginseng ecology.  Part of the answer has to do with land tenure.  The plant takes at least 5 years to mature into harvestable size, and many harvesters lacked the tenure needed for such a long-term investment.  Wilma Dunaway has shown that some 70% of land in Appalachian counties was owned by absentee owners.  Thus, instead of investing time and energy into ginseng cultivation, the landless and smallholding mountain residents dug it from the absentee-owned forest mountainsides, the de facto commons.  Over time, the practice that anyone could harvest the plant wherever they found it growing evolved into custom, defended by appeals to common right that was not easily overturned.  Much like fish, game, berries, chestnuts, and other medicinal plants, ginseng was considered the property of the harvester rather than the landowner.  Any attempts to cultivate ginseng would have been just as futile as trying to lay claim to the bounding deer roaming across your property or the blackberries growing along the roadside.  No one would respect it.

After the Civil War, however, these dynamics began to change when a significant ginseng boom occurred in the southern Appalachians.  Due to the economic devastation that followed the Civil War, more people took to the forests to gather the lucrative root in the 1870s and 1880s, which led to the root’s disappearance across much of the mountains.  With a large landless population in search of the increasingly scarce root, many landowners sought to monopolize control over the plants growing on their property.  They typically placed a fence around a naturally growing patch in the woods and transplanted any young plants found nearby to inside the enclosure, but  many people refused to acknowledge ginseng as private property.  One ginseng dealer in western North Carolina summarized the conventional thinking about cultivation in 1887.  “[Ginseng] will not thrive artificially cultivated; but if protected in its natural locality, it will become abundant.  But sang gardens, like cattle ranges, are common property, and are greedily pounced upon by searchers without regard to rights of ownership.”[3]  Landowners increasingly realized that if they were going to monopolize control over their ginseng, they would have to figure out how to grow it under artificial conditions so that they could more forcefully wrest the plant from the commons.

A significant breakthrough in ginseng cultivation occurred in the 1890s when an upstate New York gardener named George Stanton demonstrated a way to use artificial shading and raised beds to construct his ginseng plantations.  He wrote several articles in various periodicals heralding his achievement.  This news was encouraging to landowners who wanted to grow ginseng.  If they could artificially reproduce ginseng’s growing conditions, they could locate their gardens closer to their homes so they could be better monitored and protected.  At the same time, in Somerset, Kentucky, J.W. Sears found his experiments with artificial cultivation paying off, and more and more people got into the business.  In 1901, a ginseng grower from New York started the periodical Special Crops to circulate information on ginseng growing.  Other growers published dozens of pamphlets and booklets from Missouri to Kentucky to Wisconsin.  The New York Ginseng Growers Association formed in 1902, and within a few years, there were growers’ associations in five other states, leading to the formation of the National Ginseng Growers’ Association in 1905. In addition, between 1898 and 1906, at least six state agricultural experiment stations began publishing studies on ginseng culture.   It became something of an obsession of Maurice G. Kains, a USDA horticulturist who was a student of Liberty Hyde Bailey at Cornell University.  In 1899, he published what became one of the most popular growers’ manuals.[4]  By 1910, ginseng growing had developed into a full-blown craze, bolstered by a growing progressive agricultural apparatus.

Reliable statistics that could accurately illuminate the size of growing industry on a national level are hard to find.  According to the agricultural census, there were just 23 ginseng farms in the country in 1909 that produced less than 14,000 pounds.  By 1929, there were 303 farms producing 59,000 pounds per year.[5]  However, evidence from local newspapers suggests that these numbers grossly underrepresent ginseng growers.  For example, in Pulaski County, Kentucky, alone, where some of the first ginseng nurseries were located, the number of gardens jumped from less than ten in 1900 to over 90 just two years later in 1902, according to the local newspaper.  Their value apparently increased from $12,000 to over $160,000 (over $3 million today).[6]  Similar stories can be told of upstate New York, western North Carolina, Ohio, Missouri, and Wisconsin. Newspapers from western North Carolina indicate that dozens of people got into the business during these years.  In Wisconsin, the Fromm brothers alone harvested from five to ten thousand pounds each year in the 1920s.[7]  Needless to say, there were many more people who grew ginseng than there were those who reported their ginseng to the census.

While wild ginseng continued to supply most of the U.S. exports to China, cultivated ginseng made significant inroads in the market in the first two decades of the twentieth century.  One dealer estimated in 1907 that cultivated root made up most of the annual exports.[8]  However, there were ecological, market, and social forces that worked to complicate the triumph of artificial cultivation.  First, the agroecological problems proved difficult to overcome.  By increasing the density of the plants in open-ground beds, growers made the plants more susceptible to different types of pathogens, which led to problems with root rot and blight.  Growers also found that plants grown in soil that was too loose came up earlier in the spring and were susceptible to late frosts.  Secondly, market demand kept the expansion of the industry in check.  Chinese consumers were not receptive to the cultivated root.  They much preferred wild-harvested ginseng, and they paid a premium for it.  There are different explanations for why Chinese consumers preferred the wild root, none of which were obvious to growers in the early twentieth century.  One commonly accepted explanation today was that the wild root is thinner with more secondary roots, which makes them more resemble a human figure, a quality that Chinese consumers highly valued.  They also sensed that the wild root was more efficacious than the cultivated root.  Modern studies have confirmed that the wild root is genetically different.  It has more of the DNA base Cytosine methylation, which accounts for several aspects of plant development.

For these reasons, many growers found that artificial cultivation was not worth the risk and continued to grow ginseng in the forest.  A vigorous debate erupted between those growers who swore by the artificial method and those who favored the natural, or forest, method.  J.W. Sears, one of the early champions of the artificial method resorted back to the natural method after struggling with damping off and other diseases.  “Ginseng will be alright when we get to nature’s way of growing,” he told the Kentucky Agricultural Extension Agent.[9]  However, those who were committed to the natural method and located their beds in the forests were forced to reckon with those who continued to insist that ginseng was common property.  Indeed, the pages of Special Crops and other growers’ manuals were filled with people reporting that thieves had stolen their ginseng and spreading information on how to protect it.

Concerns about ginseng theft prompted growers to lobby state legislatures for more punitive laws for ginseng thieves.  Several states made it a felony, punishable by up to 5 years in prison, to dig ginseng from behind a fence.  South Carolina outlawed the taking of an “intentionally planted” ginseng regardless of whether it was surrounded by a fence.  By the middle of the twentieth century, nearly all states in ginseng country had made it illegal to dig ginseng on private property without written permission, which essentially ended the common right to ginseng.  Although some people continued to disregard the law, ginseng, for all intents and purposes, had become a private commodity, and ginseng growers had led the charge.

The story of the triumph of ginseng growing suggests that cultivation can be as much a social and cultural process as it was a technical and ecological one, as it meant imposing a particular view of property on the landscape.   Indeed, the triumph of ginseng cultivation was a triumph of a modern notion of the proper relationship between nature and culture, a repudiation of common rights, and it carried significant social implications.  For many people who came to rely heavily on harvesting wild ginseng from the forest in the late nineteenth century, it essentially meant an enclosure of the commons.  At the same time, the desire of growers to remove ginseng from the commons influenced the development of the growing industry.  Yet, the triumph of ginseng cultivation was ultimately incomplete, and the struggle over whether ginseng is a private or commons commodity continues today.

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[1] See, for example, Maurice G. Kains, Ginseng: Its Cultivation, Harvesting, Marketing and Market Value, with a Short Account of Its History and Botany, New Edition (New York: Orange Judd Co, 1903); W. Scott Persons, American Ginseng: Green Gold, Rev. ed (Asheville, N.C: Bright Mountain Books, 1994); James A. Duke, Ginseng: A Concise Handbook (Algonac, Mich: Reference Publications, 1989); Kristin Johannsen, Ginseng Dreams: The Secret World of America’s Most Valuable Plant (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006); David A. Taylor, Ginseng, the Divine Root, 1st ed (Chapel Hill, N.C: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006).

[2] William Byrd to Charles Boyle, 18 June 1730, William Byrd, William Byrd II, and William Byrd III, The Correspondence of the Three William Byrds of Westover, Virginia, 1684-1776, ed. Marion Tining (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1977).

[3] “Ginseng,” Asheville Citizen, 27 October 1887.

[4] Kains, Ginseng: Its Cultivation, Harvesting, Marketing and Market Value, with a Short Account of Its History and Botany.

[5] William E. Lass, “Ginseng Rush in Minnesota,” Minnesota History 41, no. 6 (Summer 1969): 266.

[6] “Land, Stock, and Crop,” Mount Vernon (Ky) Signal, 11 July 1902.

[7] “Growing of Ginseng Proves Successful on Fromm Farm,” The Daily Tribune (Wisconsin Rapids, WI), 23 August 1927.

[8] J.W. Pirtle to H. Garman, 23 July 1907, Harrison Garman Papers, Special Collections, University of Kentucky, Lexington.

[9] J.W. Sears to Harrison Garman, 21 November 1906, in Ibid.