HAGERSTOWN -- There's gold in Jim and Gladys Fazenbaker's back yard. On the rocky, wooded slope behind their house near here grows a tiny patch of a nondescript plant, the roots of which could fetch as much as $400 a pound these days.
It's ginseng, one of the most sought-after herbal remedies in the world. Prized for centuries in China and other countries as a tonic and stimulant, it can be found by the knowledgeable in the mountains of Western Maryland.
The Fazenbakers are practitioners of a fading Appalachian tradition known as "sanging," searching the woods for wild ginseng and digging up the roots for sale or personal use.
The patch behind their house is too small to merit harvesting, but the couple say they know of other secluded spots in Allegany, Garrett and Washington counties where they can find several pounds of ginseng roots. Like favorite fishing holes, those locations are family secrets.
"The most I've ever found myself [in a year] was 11 pounds," says Jim Fazenbaker, 58, a retired state park manager. "It's a lot of walking." With the recent surge in prices for wild ginseng, hunting for it can be a lucrative hobby -- if you know what you're doing and follow the rules.
Used as a medicine for 2,000 years by Asians, the root now is taken by millions of Americans who have become interested in Eastern remedies such as acupuncture. Pills, powders, potions, tea bags, oils and even soda purportedly containing ginseng are marketed to those seeking its supposed powers.
So popular has ginseng become that the plant, once abundant in the Eastern United States, is threatened by over-harvesting. Maryland and other states have regulated its collection and sale within their borders but with limited success. This year the federal government also imposed restrictions on ginseng exports.
Hard to spot
The ginseng found in Maryland and about 16 other states is a close cousin of the plant the Chinese have long revered as "ren shen," or "man root." Some wild roots look like miniature people, their gnarly branches resembling arms and legs.
In the woods, ginseng is not easy to spot. Its pointy, serrated leaves resemble those of a hickory seedling or of wild sarsaparilla, also known as "fool's ginseng."
Ginseng grows best in well-drained, shaded soil. It also seems more abundant in rocky ground, which Fazenbaker suggests may keep burrowing rodents from feeding on the roots.
Ginseng was used as a tonic by American Indians, and European settlers who spotted its similarity to the Chinese plant began exporting it in the 1700s. Ginseng could be found in Central as well as Western Maryland, but it has dwindled as development has destroyed the forests.
"It's getting increasingly scarce compared to what it was," says Fazenbaker, who has been sanging since his youth. Back then, a half-pound of dried roots might bring $25 or $30, he recalls. "That was one of the few ways of making any spending money."
But the root has become much more valuable, and the government is trying to halt its depletion.
Anyone wishing to collect ginseng -- even for personal use -- must obtain a permit from the Maryland Department of Agriculture. More than 350 people have paid the $2 fee.
State rules allow harvesting only of older plants with at least three stems, and only after they have produced their bright red, seed-bearing berries in August. The rules also require a collector to leave the berries behind, so they can produce new plants.
In addition to collecting ginseng, Fazenbaker is one of Maryland's seven licensed dealers.
This time of year, he places ads in Western Maryland newspapers offering to buy roots collected by others and makes purchasing forays to Allegany and Garrett every couple of weeks. He sells to a broker in New York and to local customers, but he says he's done mail-order business in the past with herb-infatuated Hollywood denizens.
Fazenbaker has saved a small basket full of the oldest and most unusual-looking roots he has dug or bought over the years. Holding up one particularly twisted one, he suggests that it could be worth $1,000 to Asian enthusiasts, who put a premium on a root's age and appearance.
"If the right person comes along with the right amount of money, they can buy it," he says. "But it won't be cheap."
Maryland's wild ginseng harvest was about 250 pounds last year, down from 350 to 400 pounds in previous years. The drop has been attributed to a depressed market because of Asia's economic woes, though the price has rebounded.
Much more ginseng is grown than is harvested wild. About 2,000 pounds was raised in Maryland last year, mostly on Hardings' Ginseng Farm near Friendsville in Garrett County. There, Larry Harding and a small crew raise the plants under trees or under broad strips of black shade cloth, trying to replicate wild conditions.
Wild variety preferred
Most of the ginseng in teas and other health products is grown on such farms, but the wild roots bring much higher prices because aficionados believe they are more potent. Gene Dankewicz, a cousin of Harding's who handles the farm's marketing, says the best of their crop has sold for nearly $200 a pound, but cultivated ginseng normally goes for much less, about $25 a pound.
It's not easy to grow. Ginseng seeds take 18 months to germinate, and the plants must be raised for five years or more to get the best prices. Funguses and pests are constant threats.
"This ginseng stuff gets in your blood," says Dankewicz, who works for a defense contractor in Northern Virginia. "It's worse than being a fishing addict. It's a lot of fun and very challenging."
Ginseng's popularity today stems in part from its reputation for curing or preventing ills. People use it for a variety of reasons, some of them contradictory: to sharpen their wits and boost energy, for instance, or to get to sleep and calm nerves. Some tout its ability to enhance sexual desire or performance.
Scientists agree that ginseng contains unique compounds called ginsenosides, but they differ on what those substances do.
Laboratory tests have found that some may lower blood pressure and cholesterol, though not necessarily in doses commonly found in commercial ginseng products.
"We use ginseng mainly for energy, or for nervousness or anxiety," says Dr. Lixing Lao, clinical director of the University of Maryland's complementary medicine program.
Since ginseng is so expensive, he adds, his clinic usually substitutes the root of a related, cheaper plant, called codonopsis root.
Most of the reputed benefits of ginseng -- particularly the sexual ones -- have yet to be proved by Western research, says James A. Duke, former chief of medicinal plant research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Beltsville laboratory.
"I'm a believer" in herbal medicine, Duke says, "but when it comes to ginseng I'm a skeptic." Carrots, he says, "could do a lot of the same thing at less than 1 percent of the price."
'I use it every day'
Most of those who collect or grow ginseng swear by it.
"I use it every day," says Dankewicz. He takes one of the pills his family's farm produces, and "if I'm feeling bad or think I'm catching a cold, I'll double up and take two."
"Why is it so unusual or crazy to think there would be some medical properties in ginseng?" asks Fazenbaker, who takes his in tea. "People have been using it for thousands of years."
He notes that many people believe if you use the herb, "you'll be romantic all your life." His wife, with a twinkle in her eye, nods her head knowingly.
"This is true," she says.