Contentious Sang: The Politics of Ginseng Production in Appalachia

Native to Appalachia—and nicknamed "green gold”—ginseng is the most valuable medicinal plant in North America. For generations, Appalachian families have passed down the secrets of "sang hunting," or finding and digging wild ginseng in the forest, and the sale of this wild ginseng still supplements incomes throughout the region. Increasingly, however, ginseng hunters are portrayed as irresponsible bandits who engage in illicit ginseng production. In response to this illicit production, retirees, back-to-the-land communities, and other stakeholders have embraced "wild-simulated" ginseng cultivation, a method by which landowners grow ginseng seed under existing forest canopy. These wild-simulated growers have obtained support from state and federal governments, and they rapidly have become some of the largest ginseng producers in the region. In this research, I examine the interactions between wild-simulated ginseng cultivation and traditional ginseng hunting. More specifically, I explore: (a) how ginseng cultivation represents a privatization of what was, traditionally, a forest commons, and (b) how cultivation-friendly policies are changing forest use and, perhaps eventually, forest livelihoods in Appalachia. These changes have the potential to reverberate throughout regional communities, economies, and ecosystems.