Presented at Southern Forum on Agriculture, Rural, and Environmental History

Birmingham, AL, April 15-16, 2016

What does it mean to domesticate a plant? According to the common reading of prehistory, the domestication of grains and legumes, as well as sheep and goats, was the central most important development that led to the rise of civilization.  Humans began structuring and rationalizing environments to produce a handful of species in high densities to feed and clothe their growing populations, initiating the Neolithic, or Agricultural, Revolution in roughly seven centers around the world after around 11,000 B.C.  Scholars use this benchmark development to distinguish between hunter-gatherers and agricultural peoples.  Implied in this reading of prehistory is a binary that divides plants into wild and domesticated.  Domesticated plants were cultivated by humans until they were permanently modified morphologically or genetically; wild plants were untouched by humans and grew under ‘natural’ conditions.  Domestication implies a total human mastery over non-human species, whereas wild implies a total lack of human involvement.

However, much like how the concept of wilderness has been problematized over the past two decades, the concept of domestication has recently been subjected to heightened scrutiny by scholars.  In the last decade or so, scholars led by anthropologists, archaeologists, and biologists have reexamined the meaning of domestication.  Many tend to see it now, as Rebecca Cassidy has articulated, as “an ongoing relationship between people, animals, plants, and the environment.  This relationship may be exploitative or mutual, intentional, or serendipitous.”  Some scholars have challenged the wild-domesticated binary and argue for a more fluid and unsettled distinction between the two poles.  Yet, the wild-domesticated binary remains powerful, both as a technical description of individual organisms and as a metaphor for a wide variety of phenomena.

Most scholars who have challenged the wild-domesticated binary have looked primarily at the human-animal relationship, including those between humans and mice and pigeons.  This paper examines the domestication of a plant, ginseng, within the context of this debate.  Like mice and pigeons, the story of the human-ginseng relationship blurs the line between the wild and the domesticated in interesting and complicated ways, revealing that both categories, on some level, are socially and culturally constructed.

The human-ginseng relationship extends well into the pre-Columbian past in North America.  Some Native Americans developed a variety of medicinal uses for them, but in the early 18th century, a couple of Jesuit missionaries—one in China and one in Canada—made the connection that the species of ginseng growing in North America was so similar to the Asian species of ginseng that the North American species could be readily traded to the Chinese as a substitute for its Asian cousin.  The Chinese relationship to ginseng extends back to as early as 2600 BC, and by the 18th century, it had become the most important medicinal herb in their pharmacopoeia.  They could not get enough of it.  This Jesuit discovery touched off a widespread search for the plant that began in Canada and spread to New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and eventually western North Carolina and the southern reaches of the Appalachians.  All of it eventually ended up in China.

In the 1730s, shortly after its discovery in Canada, the Royal Society of London became extremely interested in finding and cultivating ginseng both for scientific and commercial reasons.  William Byrd II became an early champion of the medicinal uses of the plant and did much to popularize it among the Royal Society.  Royal Society presidents Hans Sloan and Joseph Banks and members Peter Collinson and John Fothergill maintained a steady correspondence with Byrd and John Bartram with the expressed goal of obtaining and cultivating the plant in the gardens of Europe.  They believed it could be a great source of medicine as well as a great source of income upon its sale to the Chinese.  While they did succeed in finding it growing throughout the American colonies, despite a few minor exceptions, ginseng failed to thrive in either European or American gardens.  Byrd claimed that he could not get the plant to come up from seed and other planters expressed the same frustration.

It is unclear exactly why these experiments failed because I’ve found no detailed records of them, but what is clear from modern studies is that ginseng is somewhat particular about its growing requirements.  It grows in well-drained soil with a pH of 5.5 or higher in areas that are at least 65% shaded.  Seeds must be sown in the fall and must experience at least one winter in which temperatures reach below 48 degrees F for more than two months.  Moreover, plants do not grow well in temperatures that reach over 80 degrees in the summer, so there is little wonder Byrd’s experiments on the Virginia peninsula failed, but it is unclear exactly why it didn’t thrive in gardens from other, colder regions.  Whatever the reason, ginseng, unlike other medicinal plants like Cinchona, or Peruvian bark (quinine), cassava, and cocoa, did not become a plantation crop.  Available records include no mention of successful ginseng cultivation until the late nineteenth century.

For more than a century after the trans-Pacific ginseng trade began, the trade was maintained through the harvest of so-called wild ginseng.  During the initial wave of settlement, or resettlement, of the trans-Appalachian region by Euro-Americans in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, ginseng provided settlers with a ready source of cash with which they bartered with itinerant merchants and country storekeepers to obtain store-bought necessities like sugar, coffee, plow points, eyeglasses, saddles, and fabric.  One store ledger from 1780s western Virginia reveals that some 80% of its business was conducted with ginseng.  Over the next two or three generations, ginseng harvesting became woven into the cultural fabric of Appalachian communities.  Ecological knowledge of how to find and harvest ginseng was passed down through the generations, along with a set of common rights that acknowledged a right of access to the plants no matter on whose property they grew.  Thus, they were considered the property of the harvester rather than that of the landowner.

This common right contributed to the maintenance of a landscape of subsistence in which the unimproved, forested hillsides and mountainsides were treated as de facto commons areas.  These commons areas helped many mountain families obtain not only honey, firewood, game, fish, and livestock forage for home consumption but also things like ginseng that could be readily exchanged in market.  While in some parts of Appalachia and the Ohio River Valley, people could harvest a wide variety of marketable medicinal plants, ginseng was always the most lucrative.  Store ledgers and census records reveal that a wide cross section of individuals harvested ginseng, from large landowning farmers to landless tenants and farm laborers.

Available sources do not indicate if anyone successfully cultivated ginseng successfully before the 1880s.  All of it was reportedly harvested from the “wild.”  Indeed, many observers associated wildness with where the ginseng grows.  One observer commented that “only he can expect to find the largest and finest roots who has strength and inclination to tramp and climb in all sorts of out-of-the-way nooks, where the commonplace men and the ubiquitous hog and cow rarely penetrate. For ginseng is a wild thing, hiding away in deep ravines and undisturbed forests, so dense that the winds only sweep over the tops, and in their depths the owls hoot in the daytime.”  In the wake of the Civil War, the southern mountains emerged as the primary supplier of wild roots, as more people became reliant on the herb for supplemental income.  Newspapers and magazines reported on the curious people who would gather in groups of a dozen or so and make extended forays into the distant mountains where they would camp in different localities, digging up the ginseng as they moved across the landscape.

From the 1880s through about the 1910s, the ginseng-human relationship underwent a somewhat radical transformation.  After successive years of record harvests following the Civil War, along with the clearing of forests for agriculture, timber, and coal industries, ginseng had virtually disappeared throughout much of its former range.  One observer who was heavily involved in the trade estimated that by 1908, the trade in wild ginseng in the Ohio River Valley was one-tenth of what it had been in 1890. Exports of wild ginseng dipped by more than half of what they were in the 1880s, and the price rose four-fold.  Every commentator noted that ginseng was fast disappearing from the forests.

Ginseng’s disappearance prompted numerous agricultural reformers, civic leaders, farmers, gardeners, and others to call for the widespread cultivation of the plant, both as a conservation measure and to accumulate profits for landowners.  Among the first growers to market cultivated roots were George Stanton in Summit Station, New York and J.W. Sears of Somerset, Kentucky.  In 1891, by Sears’s own account, he was struck by the clearing of hillsides for corn and other crops and believed the wild ginseng he had grown up hunting would soon vanish, so he decided to dig a few roots from the “wild” and transplant them on his property.  He, in effect, domesticated the plant, and soon he was selling cultivated ginseng to China at great profit.  His success story spread through newspapers and agricultural publications, which dubbed his efforts in 1898 “the only instance of success in cultivating ginseng.”  This attention undoubtedly helped Sears’s nursery and seed business, as he, Stanton, and a handful of other enterprising gardeners were heavily invested in selling seeds and rootstock around the country to potential growers.

Within a decade, ginseng cultivation had developed into a full-blown craze, but cultivation efforts were largely experimental and inconsistent.  Growers struggled with seed germination, blight, and root rot, and fickle markets that were subject to infinite vagaries.  A twist of fate could easily derail years’ worth of effort.  The key factors, most agreed, were the right soil type with the right moisture content and adequate shade.  By the second decade of the twentieth century, ginseng cultivation had become somewhat standardized.  Most of the large growers used elevated beds, laths for artificial shade, seed stratification, and some fertilization to grow ginseng in high densities at great profit.  According to some accounts, growers could clear $16,000 a year on one acre of land in 1901.  With the help of Sears, Somerset developed into a center of ginseng cultivation, with some 90 gardens established by 1902.  Stanton helped found the New York State Ginseng Association, and other growers associations soon followed in MIchigan, Wisconsin, and other, mostly Midwestern, states.  The periodical Special Crops began publication in 1901 to assist growers in unlocking the secrets of ginseng cultivation.

This is the commonly accepted narrative of ginseng domestication, but it was a particular narrative crafted by a vocal group of growers.  They were a progressive bunch, maintaining a self-conscious community that exchanged ideas and observation through publications like Special Crops, and they relied heavily on Agricultural Extension Agents to assist them in their experiments.  Many of them were farmers, but a large portion were lawyers, doctors, and other town elites who disparaged folk knowledge and maintained great faith in scientific agriculture.  Perhaps not surprisingly, growers crafted a narrative of domestication that put themselves at the center of the story.  Ginseng had been wild prior to the 1890s, they told each other and the interested public, but with the help of the scientific method and other progressive growers, they had tamed the plant.

But if we look a little closer at this narrative of domestication, the story gets a bit more complicated.  We see that wild ginseng was sometimes not so wild, and domesticated ginseng was not so domesticated.  First of all, much of what was considered “wild ginseng” was not beyond the realm of human influence.  Indeed, the mountains and coves between settlements and roads were very much a natural and cultural landscape, a de facto “commons” with which local residents were intimately familiar.  They had gathered ginseng, hunted game, and fished there for generations.  The papers of Harrison Garman, the Agricultural Extension Director at the University of Kentucky and author of a popular bulletin on ginseng growing, provide a fascinating glimpse into the human-ginseng relationship in the 1890s.  Garman sent out questionnaires to people in every county in Kentucky inquiring about the status of ginseng, the people who gathered it, and efforts at growing it.  Responses reveal, among other things, a depth of ecological knowledge of the commons that rivals anything the progressive ginseng growers could obtain.  They often knew where many of the larger patches of ginseng were and the ecological conditions they needed to thrive.  One man swore that the best ginseng grew on top of sandstone rocks.  Another gave Garman a detailed description of ginseng habitat, saying that it grew best in sugar maple forests, next best in Beech forests, and then oak forests, and it grew worst in pine forests.  They certainly possessed the knowledge necessary to manipulate their landscape in order to maintain ginseng populations.  And several scholars have noted that many commons users did do so.  For example, Eric Edwards, a native of southern West Virginia who grew up among a community of ginseng diggers and studied them for a M.A. thesis, argues that this community has been bound by a moral ethic, passed down through generations, that governs their interactions with the forest.  They see themselves as stewards of the forest, and they actively work to maintain ginseng populations wherever they find them.  They replant and spread seeds, dig only in the late fall, and they do not take every plant in a patch during a harvest.  Folklorist Mary Hufford has called this “tending the commons.”  While it is unclear how widespread these practices were in the nineteenth century, it is fair to assume that at times prior to the 1890s, so-called “wild ginseng” was, in fact, a carefully stewarded commons resource.

Garman’s papers also suggest that many diggers had begun to assert a level of individual ownership over ginseng populations that further blurred the line between wild harvesting and cultivation.  None of the respondents to Garman’s questionnaire acknowledged that ginseng was cultivated in their county, but occasionally one of them would admit that something was afoot.  One person told Garman that “it is not cultivated at all,” but in the next sentence admitted that “tha is a cupple of men here that has a bed of gin sang. They have woodland and it is in it.”  So this writer did not see what these men were doing as cultivation.  They simply had a bed of ginseng in their woods.  Another correspondent from Barboursville, Kentucky, objected to Garman’s use of the term “cultivation.”  He said that “cultivation means he hoes, plows, or something of the kind.  My experience is that to cultivate it is simply to make the conditions of the soil something like it is where it grows in wild state.”  Garman’s papers reveal that something akin to cultivation was, indeed, more widespread than progressive growers wanted to admit.  Trimbling County farmer Elisha Bird came across a few plants while clearing a hillside, raked away some of the undergrowth around it, told his boys not to dig it, and left it alone for three years to mature.   Pulaski County farmer Essex Spurrier decided against clearing a forested hillside on his property, pressed a few ginseng seeds into the forest floor where he’d found other ginseng growing, and placed brush around it to keep the livestock off.   Then, of course, there were the many folks who transplanted roots to the forests on their property and watched them grow for another few years before selectively digging them.

These were certainly examples of some form of domestication, but to progressive growers, it was not cultivation.  To them, cultivation meant monoculture.  It meant maximizing space in order to maximize income.  In effect, it meant extensive manipulation of ecology in order to produce profit and assuming a public identity as a ginseng grower.  Thus, growers drew an artificial line between the wild and domesticated, associated their particular type of domestication with progress, and denigrated those attempts by mountain people who relied on folk knowledge to produce ginseng.  The New York Times wrote that “One could hardly expect the people who gather the roots in the woods—the ‘sang diggers’—to take advantage of the money-making opportunities which the cultivation of the plant would afford, for they are a shiftless, roving people, wholly incapable of keeping up with the march of modern progress.”

Progressive farmers were quick to point out that these sang diggers were incapable of cultivating it successfully, but they failed to acknowledge the reality that many did not raise large gardens of ginseng because local custom in many rural communities still acknowledged ginseng as the property of the harvester rather than the landowner.   Even if some landowning diggers were eager to assert some level of individual control or ownership over the plant, they were unwilling, or perhaps incapable of overturning the system of common rights that had reigned for generations.  Elisha Bird, the small Trimbling County farmer, told Garman that “If the crop was raised far from the house in the woods the sang would be dug by others.”  Other respondents reported neighbors who had tried growing it in the woods in the past few years but they were dug up by other people.  One wrote that “I have been trying to get others to try it, but the difficulty of preventing the depredations of the professional or habitual ‘sanger’ has hindered.”  This was a constant complaint of ginseng growers across the country and one of the primary—if not the primary—reasons why ginseng was not cultivated more frequently.  So beginning in the 1890s, the tiny ginseng root became a focal point of a cultural clash over the commons between those who saw ginseng as a “wild,” or commons resource and those who wanted it to be a private commodity.

Aggravating the situation was the Chinese fondness for wild ginseng.  To Chinese consumers, there was a big difference between wild and cultivated ginseng.  Wild roots have more secondary roots, a longer rhizome, and more distinct rings around the root.  They much preferred the wild article and paid a premium for it.  The reasons for this are not entirely clear.  Some say that the Chinese liked the wild roots because the longer secondary roots made it look more like a man.  Others say the Chinese, steeped in a Daoist ecological worldview, valued wild ginseng because its wildness reaffirmed its reputation as a gift from god.  They also believed that wild ginseng had much more time to absorb the curative powers of nature, as it was typically much older than cultivated roots.  Although modern scientific studies have not found that wild ginseng is more efficacious than others, the two are genetically distinct.  Wild ginseng contains far lower levels of the DNA base cytosine methylation, which accounts for several aspects of plant development.  Whatever the reason, the Chinese preference for wild roots further worked to blur the line between wild and cultivated root, as many growers attempted to cultivate the root to meet Chinese demand, to make it resemble the wild root.  Thus, growers found that growing the roots in the forest like rural folk had done was the most profitable method of domestication.  Some called these gardens, “preserves,” much like wild game preserves.   However, this method further aggravated the culture clash over the commons, as it was even less clear that these preserves were claimed by someone.

Successful ginseng domestication, then, was not solely about solving technical challenges with scientific methods.  It was about successfully wresting the plant, both physically and ideologically, from the commons.  Removing the plant from the commons was perhaps the main reason why people grew it in lath sheds.  It was not necessarily the best way to grow it, but it was best way to remove it from the commons.   A slew of laws were passed by state governments in the first two decades of the 20th century to strengthen property rights to herbs, including outlawing the digging of ginseng on other peoples’ property and making it a felony to dig ginseng behind a fence.  Violence occasionally broke out.  One man was killed in Scott County, Virginia, in 1908, when he triggered a shotgun-motivated alarm system rigged to a ginseng garden.   In 1915, another Ohio man, an engineer, opened fire with a repeating rifle on a couple would-be ginseng robbers, killing one and wounding another.  As the twentieth century wore on, the common right to ginseng eroded away, and although people still continue to dig it illegally and legally—with permission—on other peoples’ land, the legal culture has fully embraced ginseng as private property.

In conclusion, the story of ginseng cultivation tells us a couple of things about plant domestication.   First, it supports what Chicago anthropologists led by John Terrell have argued: it is more useful to people who study the past to think of domesticated plants as plants which humans can consistently exploit, rather than plants that are morphologically or genetically distinct from wild plants due to human manipulation.  This change in conception can widen the scope of agroecological studies to include more of the forest as well as the farm.  Secondly, it reminds us that the concept of plant domestication is indeed culturally constructed.  How people drew the line between wild and domesticated ginseng tells us as much about the subject drawing the line as it does the relationship between humans and ginseng.  The human-ginseng relationship was complicated and should be thought of as part of a continuum rather than a binary.  Influenced by factors such as forest ecology, plant biology, economic need, demographic realities, cultural predisposition, and social relations among humans, this relationship was always a mixture of wildness and cultivation.  Humans were part of the landscape, and they exerted varying levels of control and ownership over ginseng plants, ranging from replanting seeds in the forest to building an enclosed case of lath, and these vagaries helped define the agroecology of ginseng.