Story last updated at 1/5/2011 - 5:03 pm
Flipping through vitamin catalogues most of us seem to find in our mail boxes, we've seen ads for ginseng - a traditional Chinese medicine adopted by many people in the U.S. Where do all the roots come from to make the tinctures, pills, and teas? At one time, from Southeast Alaska.
First let's look at what ginseng is. It comes from slow-growing perennial plants with fleshy roots. The name is a Chinese word meaning "man root" referring to the root's characteristic forked shape, resembling the legs of a man. What makes ginseng important is its medicinal uses, although over time scientists have found it difficult to verify the benefits. It was traditionally believed to increase the body's resistance to stress, have anti-carcinogenic and antioxidant properties, and provide many other benefits.
It likes to grow out of the sunshine in cool climates like northern China and Korea. The ginseng produced in the U.S. temperate regions is thought to promote Yin energy, cleans excess Yang, and calms the body, according to advertisements. Canada's Ontario and British Columbia currently grow most of the American ginseng.
"Will it grow in Alaska?" W. E. Parrott thought so and he set up a ginseng farm on Sergief Island, one of those islands at the mouth of the Stikine River near Wrangell. In February 1919, he sent 18 pounds of root to New York, netting him $10 per pound. I suppose $180 was quite a bit of money in 1919. Today his shipment on the consumer market would be worth six times as much: $60 per pound of roots.
Parrott started his farm in 1913, planting seeds in beds 190 feet long and 6 feet wide with drainage ditches between the rows. At the time that Parrott began his farm, the plant was becoming scarce in the U.S. The highest grade, he learned, was grown in a small area of China and was used by the royalty and upper circle of China's Four Hundred. The second grade came from Korea and Manchuria, the third grade came from the U.S., and the lowest grade grew in Japan. In 1913, China was said to be importing ginseng from the U.S. through the port of Hong Kong. It was used, as previously mentioned, by millions of Chinese who according to Parrott, praised high heaven for its benefits believing it renovated and reinvigorated failing forces.
Parrott's ginseng seeds took about 18 months to germinate, then four to six years to mature. Above ground it is a leafy plant with a red bloom. He told a Wrangell reporter he had no trouble getting his ginseng to grow on the loamy soil of the Stikine River delta.
Interestingly, no more is mentioned of his ginseng farm after 1919. He grew other vegetables and fruit. In fall 1918, he supplied Wrangellites with strawberries and swiss chard. J. L. MacKechnie, a Petersburg U.S. Forest Service ranger, wrote after his visit in 1922, that Parrott was raising root crops like carrots, potatoes, rutabagas, and parsnips. Parrott gave up his homestead on Sergief Island in 1926.
I wonder why Parrott stopped growing ginseng. Perhaps after planting his first seeds, he did not want to waste energy and money on a crop that he wasn't sure would produce. He did not plant the seeds each year to produce a sustained crop. The market may have changed in the years it took for his ginseng to mature. Perhaps $10 per pound was too little to pay for the transportation to the East Coast?
Could there still be plants growing on Sergief Island? I see on the Web that ginseng can go dormant for a time. Could they have matured and gone to seed, and some of the seed germinated?
Would anyone on Sergief Island be able to identify a ginseng plant? Wrangellites who frequent the Delta tell me it would be a big undertaking to sort through all the plants that live there today.
Nowhere in my research have I found any other mention of growing ginseng in Alaska.
Pat Roppel, a 50-year resident of Southeast Alaska, is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.