September Means Ginseng
How an annual tradition has kept my family rooted
September means ginseng. It means hunting, but no animals — not yet. Just little carrot-looking roots brown as the ground from which we pull them, just waiting for us to go digging for them.
We start in the early morning, on my first day off from school, when daddy is off work. We gather our pokes (that’s what we call small paper bags in these parts) and a hoe. Then all of us — daddy, my sister, my best friend A.J. and me — trek up the mountain. We go in search of little groups of leaves, three — or if we’re real lucky, four — to a root, which burst forth from the earth like a regal princesses with red crown waiting to be rescued by Prince Charming.
My sister spots the first one.
Here! she says, her shrill little voice squealing in excitement. We all gather round to where she is pointing.
Sure enough, a three pronged root sticks up from the ground. My dad seems proud. Even at just over four and a half years, my sister is able to distinguish ginseng leaves from weeds. My father has taught us well.
Daddy squats on his knees in front of the plant. He takes his hands and begins to move the delicate soil around the ginseng’s stem in a circle, wiping it away. We watch as dad carefully instructs us on how to remove the root.
First, you have to save the berries — that’s how you get it so we have more to dig in the coming years.
He gently pulls the berries from the top of the plant, and asks me to hold them. He takes his hoe — his ginseng getter, he calls it — and gently digs down into the earth, on the outside of the root, being careful not to stab and break it.
You gots to be careful. The roots don’t like to be harmed. You gots to take your time, and make sure you don’t hit the stem, or you’ll never be able to find the root.
He keeps digging around, moving the dirt with his hands. He takes the hoe, breaks more of the earth, uses his hands to push the soil away. Finally, we see ginseng, its hair roots poking out from the soil.
We almost gots it. Daddy’s voice grows in excitement.
He pries his fingers under the root, gently pulls up. Out of the earth comes this creature from the nether world, a small bundle of brown tree freshly pulled from under the ground. We kids look stupefied.
You mean, that’s it? A.J. asks
That’s it, daddy says, a giant grin on his face. Isn’t she a beauty?
No, my sister says, ever so honest. And I agree with her. It looks more like a little ugly voodoo doll than something of beauty.
Daddy places the ginseng into the poke. He takes the hoe, digs into the ground, and replants the berries. Two inches deep, six inches apart he reminds us. He then covers the berries with dirt and pats the soil like he pats me on the back when he’s proud of me.
After a few hours of ginseng hunting, we make our way back to the house. Mama shoos us kids into the wash room to clean ourselves, while daddy lays out the day’s catch to dry. Soon the ginseng will be boiled into tea that grandma will drink to ease her aching bones, and cooked into chicken soup when we kids get sick. Some of it daddy will take into town to sale for extra money.
No matter its ultimate use, though, we know that the roots from this year hunt — just like last years, and the years before that, and even the years of my grandaddy and his grandaddy — will hold us through. Until come next September, at least — and then we’ll go digging for more.
This creative nonfiction piece is part of my series on coming of age in rural Appalachia.