Ginseng diggers arrested
Digging ginseng is a long-standing mountain tradition that can bring in hundreds of extra dollars, but can also spell trouble to those who don't follow the rules.
Four Haywood County residents were charged this month for violating state laws on harvesting the medicinal root.
Larry Phillips Smathers, 70, and his son, Larry Phillip Smathers II, 37, of Smathers Cove Road, Canton, were both were arrested on Sept. 12 for digging ginseng out of season.
“The landowner had put out some wild game cameras in his ginseng patch where we were able to obtain some still pictures and videos of different dates of Mr. Larry Phillips Jr. picking the ginseng on several occasions,” said Sgt. Jason Hughes with the Canton Police Department.
Ginseng can only be harvested in North Carolina between Sept. 1, and April 1, and cannot be harvested on property without the permission of the owner.
Although Hughes said he collected about 17 pounds of ginseng from the Smathers’, it is difficult to determine how much there was to begin with.
“That’s the thing about ginseng. It loses weight by day so if we see 17 pounds, every day that it dries it loses weight. They sell it when it’s completely dry,” said Hughes.
Smathers II was charged with two counts felony larceny of ginseng and misdemeanor aiding and abetting digging or possessing ginseng during closed season. He was placed under a $2,500 unsecured bond.
Smathers senior was charged with misdemeanor aiding and abetting digging or possessing ginseng during closed season and misdemeanor collecting ginseng during closed season. He was released on written promise to appear in court on Nov. 11.
On Sept. 3, Haywood County Sheriff’s officers arrested Kathy Lynn Owen, 48, and Michael Shane Owen, 40, for digging ginseng without permission. They were found after police received a call about a suspicious vehicle. The couple told authorities they did not realize they needed consent to dig on the property.
According to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) website, ginseng brings in more than $3 million each year to North Carolina. Collectors sell the plants to the more than 40 registered ginseng dealers in the state who ship it overseas.
Maggie Bowers, of Waynesville, became one of three registered ginseng dealers in the county four years ago because she wanted to help her father, Furman Leon Bolden, find a good price for the ginseng he digs.
“Now it helps me and my family,” she said. “It’s a hobby and a business.”
People who collect the ginseng will call Bowers and meet her at her home, where she pays on the spot. Then, she sells the ginseng, either dried or “green,” to people as far away as California, Minnesota and New York.
Ginseng is used mostly for its medicinal benefits and usually is shipped to places such Hong Kong and Singapore, she said.
Aside from the business she has created, Bowers appreciates the medicinal value of ginseng. She keeps ginseng roots in a glass jar filled with vodka and drinks one shot of the ginseng vodka daily to help maintain good health.
Bowers stays competitive with her prices, which can change daily, she said. Currently, one pound of dry ginseng could go for about $485.
It takes 31/2 pounds of green, or fresh, ginseng to make 1 pound of dry, she said.
“At the beginning of the season, two guys brought me right at 20 pounds of green ginseng,” she said, for which she paid $2,400.
Bolden, 82, has been digging ginseng since he was 10 years old, and can testify to the difficulty and dangers of walking through the forest to find the plant. Snakes and bees were always a big concern, he said.
“When people come and they want to brag about the root they got, I listen to them because I know what they had to go through,” Bowers said.
Strict laws are monitored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Plant Conservation Program in the Plant Industry Division of the NCDA&CS to ensure the wild American ginseng does not become extinct because of over-collection.
Above ground, ginseng looks like a green plant with red berries, but the valuable part of the plant is the root.
State law only allows people to dig plants with three prongs or more. Although a license is not required, the landowner must give written consent for others to dig on their property.
Anyone wishing to buy ginseng for resale must obtain a dealer's permit issued by the NCDA&CS Plant Protection Specialist annually and follow state regulations for buying, selling and record keeping.
Bowers said if people dig ginseng when the berries are growing, they can plant the berries to re-populate the patch. The problem is, some pickers don’t bother re-planting, and sometimes dig too early, which is why the laws are in place.
Find additional information on ginseng laws at www.ncagr.gov.
Registered Ginseng Dealers in Haywood County
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