Hidden treasure lurks in mountain forests

Like all "true blue" American persons, I read my hometown paper. I no longer recognize a name or a face, but somehow when that paper arrives, I feel like it brightens my life. It was really brought to brilliant glare when I saw an ad for buying dried panax quinquefolius that would pay 750 to 800 American dollars a pound. In my day, the whole family would have been digging, and they would have been called "sengers." They dug and sold the magic herb ginseng, and they called their profession "sengin'." They discarded the "ing" ending generations ago.

If you hear that expression, you will know that you are talking to a person who "sengs" in the mountains of western Virginia. "Seng" acts as a verb as well as noun. "I senged in there," reported Mose George of Bath County, Va., and then added, "I was standing there looking around when right out of the blue, there was a stalk brushing against my britches. It was a sight to see because it is beautiful."

All those years ago, when I first got interested in this magic plant, another senger told me, "You can only find it in certain places. It ain't gonna be where the oaks are at, too much acid in there. It likes the wet side of the mountain, where you find walnuts, poplar and that nice sassafras."

Ginseng is the cure for many diagnosed ailments and some that do not even have a name. I know for a fact that it has cured all kinds of pain and certainly given new life to coal miners who struggled to overcome the effects of under-the-earth mining. However, the great boon was to older ladies and gentlemen. It sharpened their wits and helped them remember more, possibly some things they would have preferred to forget.

Senging is a profession, even if it is done only on weekends. It requires special tools and stamina and "stick-to-itiveness" -- no half-hearted measures here. Make your hoe and get your big snake-proof boots out, along with hand-knitted socks and gloves that are to be worn only on the trail. When it comes to handling the seng, you do that with your hands uncovered and well trained in the gentle manner of placing it carefully in the special bag you carry for transporting this opulent weed.

Young men in the country where I grew up fashioned their own seng hoes, shaped like a mattock but smaller and one end really sharp to cut through the tightly packed soil that protects the strangely shaped roots that are twisted and bulbous. The hoes were carefully made so as not to be too heavy for mountain climbing. Some sengers swear that if you find a plant growing at the bottom of a hill, look up -- there will always be another one above it, because if permitted, its roots travel down. Some hunters and diggers of this expensive plant began to believe that it has a life of its own, sharing with the walnut and sassafras trees secrets of where it hides in the rich soil of the Appalachians.

However, it does not hide alone. Ginseng seems to enjoy the warmth of heavy boulders and clutters of ancient rocks that gather heat all through the summer months. Then in the fall, leaves cover them with a warm blanket, so when the weary copperhead or the summer-tired diamondback rattler takes up residence, its bedroom is comfortable and cozy for the months it rests in that secluded place. The seng plant, too, likes that warmth and protection, and his roommates act as border guards against thieving ginseng diggers.

Some sengers believe the plant has a special way of hiding itself. "It is just plain tricky," said an old man from over Warm Springs way. "I have combed these mountains for years, and I found my share of the plant. You get paid for it, but, boy, you work for it, too." He smiled as he added the best part of the story:

"One year I marked the place where I found a straggly little plant growing. I checked it all through the summer, and when fall came, I saw those yellow leaves and then the red berries, and I did not touch it, because I knew I would have maybe a four-pronger next summer. I waited and watched, and when the time came, I crawled up that mountain and it was gone, not dug up -- just plain gone. I dug in the dirt and couldn't find a trace. No one had stolen it, it hadn't died. It just left. The old plants like to trick folks, and I just decided that $50 wasn't enough to make up for that kind of double-cross."

He thought for a minute and then added: "Now, today, it is quite a different story. It brings a handsome price, but it takes work and patience, and, listen, that plant is about gone, but now the Chinese grow it in big modern laboratories. But they still want ours, and poor us, we have little left in these mountains that we so carelessly ignored."

Sam Merchant, a good friend, told me years ago that his daddy said, "If you don't leave some roots and you don't fill in the ground and make it comfortable for the winter, it won't be there next year, and then what will you do? Being careless with these wonderful gifts we were given is a fault of these people. We just thought things would stay the same, and now we know that nothing thrives without care."

I can remember, as a little girl, walking mountain trails with my father, and he pointed out the ginseng plant and told me stories about how his mother used it as a tonic and a cure for various gastrointestinal problems. "If we had a bellyache," he said, "my mama would take a little piece of that root and put it in some boiling water and let it soak for a while, and then, with a tad of sugar, we drank it and felt better. We bought ours from the sengers who came around in January or February selling a few pieces or as much as you wanted. It was not cheap then and has gotten more costly through the years. It is getting harder to find and it is difficult to dig, you got to be careful of snakes that love to sleep coiled up in the roots. Many a fellow has been bitten because he put his hand in too quickly and grabbed the snake instead of the plant."

Sixty or more years ago, it was a mountain boy's weekend fun, hunting and digging the seng. The money they made went for fishing gear and more guns. Simple boys, they worked for them instead of stealing, and they never thought of killing any person, they only dreamed of the squirrel and rabbit world and possibly a bear, if they were lucky.

However, they always remembered to bring their mother's branches and bark from the sassafras tree. It delivered a scent when she made that never-to-be-forgotten tea that filled the house and made pleasant dreams for those weary sengers.