Ginseng is a perennial plant with fleshy roots that are used in a variety of folk medicines. It is also an ingredient in many energy drinks. Medicinal qualities are attributed to ginseng leaves too.
The Chinese are the world's biggest consumers of ginseng. South Korea is the number one producer and also a big consumer of the herb. Canada and the United States are the other big producers, but most of our harvest is exported to Asia. Ginseng has been used in Asian medicine for thousands of years.
Ginseng, Kentucky, is an unincorporated community in LaRue County. The town was so named because wild ginseng was once harvested there for sale in nearby Elizabethtown. This is the part of Kentucky where Abraham Lincoln was born. It is close to the Catholic-dominated Kentucky Holy Lands and many of Kentucky's historic and contemporary bourbon distilleries.
There are many types of ginseng with different attributes. The type found in Kentucky is American ginseng, which according to traditional Chinese medicine promotes yin energy, cleans excess yang and calms the body. Although ginseng can be cultivated, wild ginseng is considered the most potent and, therefore, most valuable type. It thrives in deeply shaded woodlands where the soil is moist, well drained, and high in organic matter. Kentucky is the largest ginseng producer in the United States. Eighty-five percent of the U.S. ginseng harvest is exported to China via Hong Kong. In China, wild ginseng sells for $1,500 to $2,000 a pound. Chinese demand drives the market for Kentucky ginseng.
The wild ginseng harvest season in Kentucky is from September 1 to December 1. Because it is seasonal, ginseng gathering is not a fulltime job, but a lot of people do it. A successful ginseng gatherer can make good money, $300 to $350 per pound.
Limiting the harvest season is one way Kentucky tries to protect its ginseng crop. There are rules about harvesting only mature plants (you can tell by the leaves) and planting berries when they are found.
In season, you may harvest ginseng on your own land, or on other private land with permission. Ginseng gathering on public land is prohibited except in the Daniel Boone National Forest. You need a permit and can only take ginseng there for personal use.