NEWPORT, Tenn. — State Rep. Jeremy Faison, with a team of researchers and administrators from MTSU in tow, set out in the woods of Cocke County Friday morning to dig for Appalachian gold.
He was with scientists from the Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research, based at MTSU, who sought his help to collect samples of the East Tennessee-grown ginseng to compare with varieties of the herb found in China.
MTSU’s partnership with the Guangxi Botanical Garden of Medicinal Plants in China is exploring the uses of ancient herbal remedies in modern medicine, an effort that has yielded almost 40 results showing promise in the treatment of cancer, viral infections and other aliments.
Faison has hunted “seng,” the Appalachian slang for ginseng, for eight years. Moving through the moist air and damp brush, with a steel chisel as an unearthing tool, he was able to lead the MTSU team to several samples quickly.
MTSU President Sidney McPhee and state Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) went on Friday’s hunt for ginseng as well, digging up samples to be used by the team.
Faison said a pound of wild ginseng brings close to $700. “There are a lot of old timers around here who have been digging seng and paying bills for years,” he said.
Ginseng has been a valuable medicinal herb, particularly in the Asian markets, for centuries. The American variety of the herb was discovered in the 1700s and has long been a part of Appalachian culture. Historians say legendary frontiersmen Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone were ginseng traders.
Demand for ginseng remains strong to this day, where aggressive harvesting of the wild herb in Asia has increased demand for American ginseng. State officials say ginseng is a multimillion-dollar industry for Tennessee.
McPhee, during a trip to China last summer, suggested that researchers grow ginseng and other botanical samples for study at MTSU’s 500-acre agriculture complex at Guy James Farm. The university and botanical garden, cited as the world’s largest medicinal herb garden by the Guinness Book of World Records, are partners in an exclusive collaborative agreement that seeks to develop Western medicines from plant extracts.
“I think it has great potential, because our agricultural program is one of the best in the Southeast and we have a lot of good farmland in our state,” McPhee said.
The partnership, which began in 2011, plays to the strengths of both institutions. Garden researchers cultivate and prepare extracts. Then, MTSU scientists, led by professor Elliot Altman, screen the samples to determine their promise in the treatment of ailments.
Wild ginseng grows mainly in small groups or as solitary plants on shady slopes in forest beeches, maples, hickories and oaks, basswood and tulip poplar. Trees shield the plants from direct sunlight and provide cool-air circulation.
It thrives in East Tennessee’s mountain region, where the forest soil is rocky, moist, light, and porous with a high content of rotten leaves. But, as a cultivated crop, it grows well throughout Tennessee in forest clearings, such as after selective tree harvesting.
The wild herb takes years to grow to maturity. With its long maturation and high demand, it was designated as a “special concern” species and, since the mid-80s, the annual Tennessee harvest has been regulated by the state’s Department of Environment and Conservation.
The wild ginseng harvest season is from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31, but it usually ends by the first frost in early October. It is unlawful to dig wild ginseng for the purpose of sale or export on any date not within the ginseng harvest season.
Faison said he was glad to assist MTSU in finding samples to study and he plans to come to Murfreesboro to observe the testing to see how East Tennessee samples compare to samples from the botanical garden in China.
He said he wants to encourage research on ways to cultivate wild-simulated ginseng, known for its roots that are twisted and bent, as a cash crop.
“It’s all because of the Chinese market,” he said. “There’s something special about Appalachian ginseng — and they will pay premium dollars.”
Ketron, who helped organize Friday’s visit to Faison’s district, agreed, and said ginseng has potential for the entire state.
“It’s a great opportunity, not only for MTSU but the state of Tennessee," he said. "If we can grow this commercially on the farm at MTSU, there’s a great possibility we could sell this — and bring in revenue.”