Ginseng Hunting is a real thing

The editor’s email had a subject line of “upcoming assignments.” One of the topics was ginseng hunting. The text message back to the editor bluntly said, “that’s a thing?” While it may be difficult to convey surprise by text message, that was a pretty good effort.

Turns out that ginseng hunting is not only a real thing, it can be financially lucrative (not without a lot of hard work over time) and it’s even regulated by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Ginseng is a natural resource that grows in the wild and people in the Far East are willing to pay a good amount of money for the root of a ginseng plant. John Peterson of Rushford is someone who’s been ginseng hunting for a long time. He got into it through another outdoor activity.

ginseng hunting

Wild ginseng hunting was the strangest story subject I’ve ever received, but it was also one of the more interesting. Ginseng hunting is the most popular outdoor activity in southeastern Minnesota that no one talks about. (Photo from owlcation.com)

“I’m a trapper,” Peterson said. “Trappers dig roots. Every October, when I return from a North Dakota pheasant hunting trip, I’m in the woods every day until February. I don’t miss a day and my wife will attest to that.”

The ginseng hunting season opens on Friday, September 1. Hunters can go out and dig up ginseng plants until the first frost. After that, the leaves drop off and only the stem remains. Then, you really have to know your plants in order to dig up the right roots. When John was more of a regular hunter, he used to clear a good amount of money to supplement his income, but it took a long time to get to that point. Peterson got started years ago by listening to what he called the “old-timers” as they were talking about it.

“One night I was out raccoon hunting,” Peterson recalled, “and I saw a plant with red berries on it and the guy I was hunting with said ‘that’s ginseng.’ I cut it, dug it out, took the root home and pressed it. Then, I walked around the woods carrying that root in my hand and matching it up.”

You have to know what you’re looking for as certain other plants look a lot like ginseng. There have to be a certain number of leaves on the plant before they’re legal to be picked. In fact, unlike Minnesota, people in Wisconsin who harvest ginseng are required to bring in the entire plant to make sure everything is legal.

“By harvesting it, you’re spreading the seeds around,” he said. “We also rely on deer eating the berries. They’ll pass right through a deer and it gets replanted that way. That’s why you walk along a lot of deer trails, looking on the downhill side of the trail. You learn things like that over the years.

“If you’re in the woods with a lot of chipmunks, chances are good there’s some ginseng in there,” he added. “Chipmunks will bury those things all over and they’re a lot like squirrels, they only remember about half of them. It’s another thing we’ve learned by trial and error.”

Peterson said the hunters who’ve been doing this a long time will also make sure to take seed into the woods and replant them. He said the ideal way to run the season would be to charge people for a license to pick the plant, and then hunters would pay for a pound of seed to replant ginseng out in the woods while the pick it. It’s important to keep planting it so ginseng hunting opportunities are there for future generations.

“Don’t forget that when you pick the plant and dig up the root, keep the root whole,” he said. “Customers don’t want it broken. When it gets to the Far East countries, including China, if those folks can dry the root out and get it to look like a human being, they’ll make things like necklaces out of them.”

Buyers in the Far East also pulverize ginseng and use it for medicinal purposes, putting it in capsulated pills. Peterson’s brother, Ron, takes ginseng for his joints and says it helps. A Google search turned up a medicalnewstoday.com article that says ginseng is thought to boost energy levels, lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels, reduce stress, promote relaxation, and helps treat both diabetes as well as sexual dysfunction in men.

There are a lot of people in Rushford that dig up ginseng, but Peterson said, “You’d never know it.” He said they’re a pretty tight-lipped group that “trusts their camouflage” when they’re out digging up roots. Peterson has seen people walk right past him and never knew he was there. There’s also a gentlemen’s agreement when hunters do meet each other in the wild that they don’t ask each other how much they’re digging up, either.

“When I start looking for ginseng on a particular hill,” he said, “I go across it (horizontally) anywhere from 4-6 times going up to make sure I cover every inch of it. There’s no rush, so I walk slowly. The only thing you need to worry about out there is rattlesnakes. You will find patches that have snake dens. You have to respect the snakes and be careful.”

The other hazard is ground bees, especially if a hunter is allergic to bee stings. Peterson got himself into a patch of ground bees one day while on his hands and knees, digging up some ginseng roots. It was a hard way for Peterson to find out he was allergic, so now he carries epinephrine while in the woods.

“If you want to get started, you have to learn your plants,” he said, “as well as what grows with it. Ginseng loves company. When you find a plant in the woods (ginseng doesn’t like sunlight), don’t move. Just look around and you’ll probably see 30-40 more plants.

“If you like to exercise, dig roots,” he added, “because you’re going to get it.”