The hardwoods were sporting their autumn colors as the tall oaks attempted to nudge the sky from their home on the hillside above the Salt Fork River. A gentle breeze was pushing a few clouds about as I surveyed the land where my Uncle Ross once lived in a small, woodland cabin.
There was a time, decades ago, when the hillside above the Salt Fork River would have been covered with green plants that had turned white for autumn. That is what ginseng looks like in the fall. Uncle had a fondness for wild ginseng, and the records he meticulously kept indicate he never sold any of it. He harvested the seeds from the plants and expanded the patch on the sloping hill. The ginseng eventually claimed the hill, protected by a canopy of hardwoods, and the man who loved all things in nature. For a half century or so, the ginseng garden thrived there, only a stone’s throw from his cabin.
Uncle didn’t sell ginseng but he did harvest 25 other plant varieties from his woodland farm. He recorded in pencil in a tattered ledger what he harvested, and when he harvested it. He also noted the price he received for the bounty of nature. Goldenseal, wild ginger, bloodroot, and soapwort were among the plants sold. Prices for the more than two dozen varieties over a period of years ranged from 5 cents to $3.40 per pound, with goldenseal being the most expensive.
Uncle was born in 1899 and lived less than a mile from the family homestead where he first saw the light of day. He worked at a regular job and had a small commercial apple orchard, but his interest was in nature and he endeavored to see the natural world protected. He donated freely to the Audubon Society and similar groups, and he wrote letters advocating the preservation of wetlands decades before it became a popular movement.
When he noticed wood ducks were becoming scarce, he began building nesting houses for them. This was long before they were proclaimed an endangered species. Each year he bought numerous federal duck stamps because he assumed a part of the money the government collected would be used for preservation.
Eventually age and infirmity caught up with him at the age of 78, and he was forced to leave his cabin in the woods. He was a bachelor, and he lived in a nursing home three years before he passed away. When he went to the nursing home, someone came and dug his ginseng, even the immature roots that would have had little value. Ginseng then was selling for perhaps $70 a pound, far less than the $700 it recently reached on the international market. In subsequent years, the few plants that escaped the initial invasion were dug and eventually ginseng was eradicated from the place.
Uncle never harvested his ginseng, but he had the satisfaction of creating his large patch and the joy of watching it thrive on his woodland farm. To him, that was probably more valuable than any price per pound.
Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.