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Local Ginseng Trade To Be Spotlighted With Downtown Historical Marker Nov. 6

By Jesse Wood

The Town of Boone will likely unveil a marker spotlighting the importance of the historical ginseng trade in the Boone area at the corner of King and Water streets in November.

Mature American ginseng plant with berries. Photo by Gary Kauffman/U.S. Forest Service
Mature American ginseng plant with berries. Photo by Gary Kauffman/U.S. Forest Service

While the Boone Town Council will set an official date on Thursday, the town’s Historic Preservation Commission has recommended an unveiling ceremony to take place on the First Friday in November (Nov. 6) at 5:30 p.m.

The marker states: “Native root valued in China for medicinal uses; long collected by locals. Wilcox Drug (est. 1900), among its exporters, operated 175 yds. SE.”

In March, the Historic Preservation Commission applied to the N.C. Historical Marker Advisory Committee regarding an N.C. Department of Transportation marker in downtown Boone. It was approved in May.

The marker will be located 175 yards away from where the Wilcox Drug Company/Wilcox Natural Products operated on Howard Street until 2000. According to information submitted for the marker application, Grant Wilcox opened Wilcox Drug Company in Boone in 1900:

“His family had been involved in the ginseng trade for years and he had hunted the root as a child. Later, working for his father-in-law, Wilcox bought herbs and roots and prepared them for shipment. He continued to act as a middleman in the ginseng trade until he opened his shop in Boone. Then he began to buy from families and country stores in Watauga and surrounding counties, often trading merchandise for the herbs and roots. In 1976, Butch Wilcox, the third generation proprietor, told a reporter that the business was “the largest American buyer of botanicals . . . (buying) about four to six million pounds of botanicals a year, a couple of hundred items from thirty-eight states.”

Wilcox originally opened his original location on the south side of Howard Street, but eventually moved the operation to the warehouse across the street in 1944. Today, the property is a mixed-use development of student housing and restaurants.

While the Zuellig Group, the Swiss firm that bought Wilcox Natural Products, closed it down in 2000, the ginseng trade still has a presence in the High Country. Generations of Watauga County residents have walked around the forests ‘sanging in the fall to supplement their income around the holiday season.

The high price of ginseng ($1300 per pound in 2013; $800 in 2014; and $500 in 2015) and the 7 to 10 years it takes for a root to mature contributes to the scarcity of ginseng in the woods. It is considered an endangered species under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The recent reality television shows glorifying the poaching of ginseng that began a couple years ago haven’t helped the crop either.

But ginseng seems to be making a comeback in at least Watauga County. Several growers, led by High Country Ginseng, have planted more than 2,000 pounds of ginseng seed into the ground in the past two years. At the beginning of the month, the Watauga County Cooperative Extension presented a sold-out workshop on how to grow ginseng. With all of this investment, local law enforcement is cracking down on the poaching of ginseng on private property.

Watauga County Extension Director Jim Hamilton is a proponent of local ginseng production and has met with law enforcement to talk about the potential economic impact it will have on the region once all of the seedlings turn into mature roots. While Hamilton wasn’t apart of this marker project, he said the placement of this marker was well-timed.

“I think it’s quite appropriate and timely not only to recognize the importance that ginseng has had in the traditional economy and culture of the Appalachians, but hopefully it foreshadows a comeback in our county,” Hamilton said. “With over literally a ton of seed planted over the last couple of years, I’m looking forward to seeing what the next decade brings for ginseng.”