Ginseng with ripe berry cluster
Ginseng usually grows in cool damp forests. They especially love areas covered in stinging nettles and grape vines. Grape vines make the PH of the soil just right for the plant while nettle helps with lots of micro-nutrients. Once you find one plant you want to start walking in circles radiating out from the plant. this is because many times the berries will end up very close to its parent so if you find one plant you will usually find more.
At peak prices a dry pound of the root can go for as much as 500 US dollars while wet is usually half that or less and if you try to sell less than one ounce the dealers will hose you with an even lower rate. Because of this it is best to just dry it and save it up for later. Once dry it can last for years as long as it never becomes damp.
Because of the value of this plant it has been extensively collected in many areas and so there have been laws set in place regulating how old the plant must be before it can be taken. In west Virginia I believe it is 7 years old now and you may need a permit as well. Season generally starts around the time the berries on the plant have turned red. This is to give them a chance to drop their berries and keep the species going.
The only tools you need to collect the root is a bag of some kind or a big pocket and a screwdriver. I say a screw driver because if you go digging with a shovel or a garden tool you may chop the roots, which is always a pity. Basically what you want to do is run your finger along the stem down into the ground. Unless the soil is rocky you can usually penetrate the earth fairly easily as ginseng loves loose soil. Once you have located the root use the screwdriver to dig away the soil around it. Lift the whole plant out, break the root away from the plant and put it in your bag. You can either toss the plant or hold onto it to look at every once in a while, but take note that it is illegal to remove the berries from the forest due to the threatened nature of the plant. You can either put them just under the leaf cover of the forest floor so in a few years you know right where a patch is (lots of people do this) or you can just toss them for turkeys to eat and spread the seeds around the forest.
Once you have a collection of roots and you get back home use a spaghetti strainer of some kind to hold the roots as you run water over them and GENTLY scrub away the dirt clinging to the roots. Once this is done you can either sell it as is or dry it. Drying the root reduces its weight to about 1/3 to 1/2 of it's original weight depending on how much rain there has been that season. To dry it you have two options. the preferred option is to just put it on a rack and set it in a sunny window. This is what I do and it works like a charm. the other option is to put your oven at the absolute lowest setting and put them in, but this can cause them to burn if you are not careful and buyers will not take them that way. Many places that buy it can be found in sporting goods shops and there are even places that specialize in only wild plants that can be collected for money. (Many of which I will cover in later articles) Usually if you can find "Sang" in an area you will be able to find some one in town that can point you to a place to sell it.
Like prospecting, Sangin' is kind of a way of life. There is definitely a different mindset involved once you get out into the wild and are working that close with nature. It can be at once both relaxing and exciting. (if that makes sense) The only real way to get an understanding of it is to get out there and try it for yourself!