A unique West Virginia industry is the digging and drying of ginseng root, or "sang." Little is known of this root by the public except that its commercial value arises from the demand for it in China. The word ginseng is probably Chinese, and signifies resemblance to a man or man's thigh. In the language of the Iroquois Indians the root is called garent quen, which signifies legs and thighs separated. Others state that it is from the Chinese word ginseng, meaning first of plants, as it puts forth early in the spring. The scientific name of the ginseng of commerce is Panax quinque folius.
The dry root is of a yellowish white color with a mucilaginous sweetness in the taste, somewhat resembling that of licorice, accompanied by a slight aromatic bitterness. The plant is indigenous only in rich mountain coves and is never found growing in poor land. In this country it is found in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee, the river counties of Ohio, in the mountains of Western North Carolina, in small quantities in Western Pennsylvania and Maryland, and in nearly every portion of this State. The annual crop exported averages from 600,000 to 750,000 pounds, and of this amount over one-fourth is dug in West Virginia, and as the average price paid here is $1 75 per pound, it can be easily seen that ginseng is not a staple of inconsiderable importance. The plant is also found in the mountains of China, Japan and in Corea. The Corean product is especially prized by the Chinese, why, no one knows.
A dealer says: "The best ginseng is grown right here in the Panhandle. We also get about the same quality from the river counties between here and Parkersburg and from the counties opposite in Ohio. Some of the finest specimens I ever saw came from near Clarington. The poorest comes from the interior, notably Braxton and the counties surrounding it. Out in the far interior, there are people who make a business every season hunting for and digging 'seng, and they so work the soil that it becomes exhausted. That gotten here in the Panhandle is better because it is not sought after so eagerly, and therefore has an opportunity to grow to some size, and, as I told you, the larger a root is and the more its shape resembles that of a man, the more value it has."
September is the month in which most of it is dug, yet any time from that until spring it can be dug, but September has the preference among diggers for two reasons: First, because its seeds then turn red and are ripe, and the whole plant is considered to have reached its perfect state of annual maturity. Second, the leaves of the plant are then a bright yellow, and as the plant grows very low these bright colors seen in the dark recesses of the wild, damp places in which it is found, among other vines and wild growth, enable the digger to pick it out. Then, too, after the plant is defoliated, unless the exact place where it grew is known, it can be definitely located only by digging until it is found. After being dug it should be carefully washed, for its worth to the trade depends in part on its being clean.
Ginseng is divided into two classes, clarified and crude. The former is rendered translucent by steaming, skinning and drying the fresh roots. Crude is the natural dried root, which if good will snap when broken. The older the root, the more its shape resembles that of a human and the more valuable it becomes. One monster root weighing about three pounds sold in China not many years ago for $1,500 in gold. Ginseng pulverized and mixed with young deers' horns is considered a cure-all. The faith in ginseng is said to be universal in the empire and all use it from the highest mandarin to the lowest coolie. The native or imperial root ranges in price from $40 to $250 and what is not used by His Highness is quickly bought up by the wealthy class of Pekin. The Corean article is marketable at from $15 to $35 per pound and the American from $6 to $10. The invigorating power of the old wild is believed in by the Chinese if used just as a person is in about the last stages, but per contra they say the result is likely to be fatal if taken by a person in good health.
There are two firms in Wheeling engaged in purchasing ginseng on an extensive scale. Horkheimer Bros. and S. Horkheimer & Son. The latter firm was established in 1848, and claims to be the only firm with one exception west of the Alleghenies which has direct communication with the Hong Kong markets, having exported direct $34,441 worth of the foot last year and about $30,000 worth so far this year. About $65,000 worth is dug in West Virginia annually, most of which is handled here.
Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, Sept. 14, 1886
Service provided by the staff of the Ohio County Public Library in partnership with and partially funded by the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation.