Black Women, Ginseng, and Ecologies of Care In West Virginia

Meet Ruby Daniels

Afrilachian Forest Farmer, Ruby Daniels. Photo by Mary Hufford.

In 2018, the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH) launched a program called “American Ginseng: Local Knowledge, Global Roots.” In cooperation with the Smithsonian’s Earth Optimism Initiative, the CFCH is developing an interactive website focused on historical and contemporary human interactions with and stewardship of American ginseng (Panax quinquefolia). The centuries-old trade in American ginseng began with the 17th century recognition that America harbored a cousin of Panax panax, Asian ginseng, which has been all but extirpated in the wild. American wild ginseng, found within the Appalachian region, is now highly prized in markets around the world, routed along complex supply chains stretching from diggers to end-users.

Ginseng’s association with masculinity is reinforced in popular representations of diggers and buyers as men, representations that hark back to the early days of the fur trade, when long hunters, diggers, and trappers fanned throughout the region in search of a wide variety of roots and pelts. Yet many stories are told in communities throughout the region of women who ginsenged. A number of women figure on lists of certified ginseng buyers in each state, and in professions that engage them closely with ginseng. What do perspectives of women contribute to the story of ginseng? With support from the Smithsonian’s American Women and History Initiative, and in cooperation with the nonprofit LiKEN, the CFCH has begun addressing the silence on women in public histories of ginseng. Over the course of 2021, LiKENeer Mary Hufford conducted fieldwork and developed profiles of women in West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee.

The profiles Hufford collected suggest that ginseng itself is entangled with diverse knowledges and ways of being that open onto remarkable ecologies of care, community stewardship, and renewal of mountain woodlands and waterways.

Huffords profiles, include Ruby Daniels who is an “Afrilachian” forest farmer and herbalist, who lives on her family homeplace in the former coal town of Stanaford, West Virginia. She works with landowners to grow ginseng for seeds and sustainable harvest, and uses alternatives to American ginseng in her business, Creasy Jane’s Herbal Remedies.

The video series on Women and Ginseng, produced by Clara Haizlett in cooperation with the Smithsonian CFCH and LiKEN, won honorable mention at the United Plant Savers’ inaugural International Herb Symposium film festival in 2022.

This story was adapted from a blog post that was published on LIKEN KNOWLEDGE.

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