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Ginseng: Georgia's New Mountain Gold

There's gold in them there hills. Brown gold. Mountain ginseng. And it's selling on foreign markets for up to $500 per pound.

Don't think you can go prospecting, though. In this case, you can't just dig your fortune out of the dirt.

"Digging ginseng is much more regulated than it used to be," said Greg Sheppard, Lumpkin County director for the University of Georgia Extension Service.

"We still hear about people trying to sneak onto someone's property to dig," Sheppard said. "But now, a patch is pretty well-guarded or kept very quiet."

In Lumpkin County, as in many north Georgia counties, you can still find wild ginseng, which yields the most prized roots.

"We have a fair amount, yes, but I don't think anybody knows exactly how much," Sheppard said. "It's not something you advertise."

Fear of overdigging and depleting the wild crop led to the 1979 state protection act that set a harvesting season, much like a hunting season.

The law limits the harvest to only plants with three or more prongs dug from Aug. 1 and Dec. 31. The digger must have permission from the landowner (or from District Ranger Stations on Forest Service land) and must plant berries wherever he digs the roots.

Anyone buying ginseng must be registered by the Game and Fish Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

"We're trying to be sure plenty of it survives in the wild," Sheppard said. "For years the old-timers would hunt it in the forest. Now it's cultivated.

"Some people say the wild or older plants are a little more potent and of higher quality than cultivated," he said, "but I don't know if that has been put to the test.

"We do have a pretty good crop here," he said. "It's a valuable crop, but it takes about eight years to develop. It can be dug sooner, but you won't get the premium price."

Ginseng is so valuable because of its health claims.

"It claims to cure anemia, diabetes, edema, high blood pressure and ulcers," said Connie Crawley, an Extension food, nutrition and health specialist. "But the one claim everyone thinks about is sexual potency.

"There is no proof," Crawley said, "that ginseng does any of these things."

In many Asian countries ginseng is used much like a vitamin supplement. "It's supposed to make you more vital and energetic," Crawley said.

Even those who claim it works don't know why.

"They think some chemical compounds make it work but they haven't been able to document it," she said.

Some minor side-effects to taking ginseng include insomnia, diarrhea and skin eruptions. But Crawley said even people who take a large amount don't have too much negative effect.

The ginseng root is sold in many forms, including pills, powders, extracts and teas.

"There's really no way to know what dosage you're getting," Crawley said. "Different types have different potencies. Amounts listed on labels are often incorrect."

During the ginseng plant's first two stages, which may last 10 years or more, its roots are small and not worth digging. It does begin fruiting during that time, its central stalk bearing bright red berries with one to two seeds each.

A mature plant has three to four compound leaves with five leaflets each and may be six to 18 inches high. Its roots weigh much more in the fall, near the end of the growing season.

If you decide to try digging ginseng, first get a permit. When digging, take care not to break off root tips or branched sections.

Rinse the roots of loose dirt, but don't scrub. Spread them out in a dry, airy place for drying. Oven drying isn't recommended because the roots will almost certainly scorch, making them worthless.

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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