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Harvesting ginseng in the Ad’ks

September 4, 2008
HEATHER SACKETT, News Staff Writer
LAKE PLACID — If you said Sept. 1 was Labor Day, you’d only be half right. It’s also the official start of the ginseng harvest, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

New York State ginseng specialist for Cornell University Bob Beyfuss held his last workshop before retiring in Lake Placid on Saturday, Aug. 23. The workshop was the first to be held in the brand-new education building at the Uihlein Forest and Sugar Maple Field Station on Bear Cub Lane. About 30 people gathered to hear Beyfuss present his practical beginner’s guide to growing ginseng.

The Uihlein Forest was the perfect place to hold the workshop because, according to Beyfuss, ginseng grows best under maple trees. Sugar maples have a high concentration of calcium in their leaves, Beyfuss explained, which leads to more acidic soil surrounding the trees, something ginseng plants love.

“It’s the most important companion tree,” he said.

Ginseng root is popular in Eastern medicines and herbal remedies. Its effects as a stimulant has also increased ginseng’s popularity in energy drinks and teas. Its three, four or five leaflets all come from one central point, with a cluster or red berries in the middle. Ginseng look-a-likes include poison ivy, jack-in-the-pulpit and wild sarsaparilla, which Beyfuss calls “fool’s ginseng.”

At about $5 per root, one pound of dried Adirondack-grown ginseng sold for roughly $1,700 last year because of a ginseng shortage that tripled prices, according to Beyfuss. But if growing ginseng sounds like the perfect get-rich-quick scheme, think again. Ginseng is finicky, requiring very specific growing conditions, takes a long time (years) to grow big enough to be profitable, and has a tendency to be eaten by animals as well as stolen by poachers.

Still, if you have a lot of patience and a green thumb, the Adirondacks provide some of the best conditions for growing the plant. Ginseng likes northeast-facing slopes near sugar maple trees on shady ground that is neither too wet nor too dry. The presence of “indicator plants,” like maidenhair ferns, in a particular area can mean ginseng would do well there.

Beyfuss, who works for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Greene County, says he likes to “hunt ‘seng” in the Adirondacks.

“Now, when I dig ginseng, I dig in the Adirondacks,” he said.

Cultivating ginseng is labor-intensive.

“You only have so many bend-overs in a day,” Beyfuss joked. “As you get older, that number decreases.”

Higher prices are paid for older “wild” ginseng grown in a woodlot with maples than for intensely-cultivated three or four-year-old ginseng grown in raised plant beds. The challenge is protecting the ginseng over the years from critters and poachers. According to Beyfuss, some top scientists say wild ginseng will be all but extinct in 100 years because of a proliferating deer population that loves to eat the plant.

“The only way to preserve the wild ginseng population is for people like you to grow it,” he said.

Article Photos

State ginseng specialist Bob Beyfuss digs up a ginseng root near the Uihlein Forest Sugar Maple Field Station on Bear Cub Lane. Ginseng grows best under sugar maple trees.
Heather Sackett/Lake Placid News



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