Ginseng Diggers: A History of Root and Herb Gathering in Appalachia Spiral-Bound | March 8, 2022
Ginseng Diggers: A History of Root and Herb Gathering in Appalachia
The harvesting of wild American ginseng (panax quinquefolium), the gnarled, aromatic herb known for its therapeutic and healing properties, is deeply established in North America and has played an especially vital role in the southern and central Appalachian Mountains. Traded through a trans-Pacific network that connected the region to East Asian markets, ginseng was but one of several medicinal Appalachian plants that entered international webs of exchange. As the production of patent medicines and botanical pharmaceutical products escalated in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, southern Appalachia emerged as the United States' most prolific supplier of many species of medicinal plants. The region achieved this distinction because of its biodiversity and the persistence of certain common rights that guaranteed widespread access to the forested mountainsides, regardless of who owned the land.
Following the Civil War, root digging and herb gathering became one of the most important ways landless families and small farmers earned income from the forest commons. This boom influenced class relations, gender roles, forest use, and outside perceptions of Appalachia, and began a widespread renegotiation of common rights that eventually curtailed access to ginseng and other plants.
Based on extensive research into the business records of mountain entrepreneurs, country stores, and pharmaceutical companies, Ginseng Diggers: A History of Root and Herb Gathering in Appalachia is the first book to unearth the unique relationship between the Appalachian region and the global trade in medicinal plants. Historian Luke Manget expands our understanding of the gathering commons by exploring how and why Appalachia became the nation's premier purveyor of botanical drugs in the late-nineteenth century and how the trade influenced the way residents of the region interacted with each other and the forests around them.
On rare occasions a book comes along that totally revises how we look at important historical issues. Luke Manget's Ginseng Diggers is such a book, providing crucial new insights into Appalachian subsistence practices. Manget opens up a whole new world of root and herb gathering, the business surrounding it, and the commons practices that made it possible. A must-read for scholars of Appalachia and anyone interested in the region's culture and history.-Daniel S. Pierce, author of Tar Heel Lightnin'
Luke Manget is Assistant Professor of History and History Education at Western Carolina University. He is a contributor to Southern Communities: Identity, Conflict, and Memory in the Nineteenth-Century American South.