Tangled in a mess of nettles and leaves at the bottom of a small cliff, I gathered my breath and took the opportunity for a short reflection on the day ahead. It was only 9 am, but sprawled there underneath a patchy forest canopy, I was already coming to the realisation that my body would be regretting this outing long before nightfall. A few moments earlier I had been shuffling along a steep leafy slope, intensely scanning the ground. Rather than spotting the distinctive leaves I had been hoping for, a misplaced foot had sent me sliding over a mininature but nonetheless painful precipice. As I untied myself from the spiky knots that were guarding against my escape, I tried to renew a mental picture of those distinctive leaves in the vain hope that they might be squashed beneath me. If I could spot them, I would have found the revered mountain ginseng.
It was believed that the wild ginseng harnessed the energy of the mountain on which it grew, lending it its very own god in Korean shamanist mythology.
Sansam (산삼) or wild mountain ginseng, has been highly treasured in Korean and Asian culture for thousands of years. Traditionally and even to this day, it has been regarded as the best medicine for almost any ailment. Sansam’s medical properties has gained it a mystical reputation; it was believed that the wild ginseng harnessed the energy of the mountain on which it grew, lending it its very own god in Korean shamanist mythology. Its renowned qualities, such as enhancing libido, combined with the rarity of this plant meant it was, and remains an incredibly valuable commodity. Today a large specimen can fetch 100 million won or more in the market. Those who attempt to find this treasure, hidden deep among forested mountain slopes are known as Shimmani (심마니), or simply, ‘Mountain Ginseng Person’.
I caught up with our guide, a Shimmani Master who presided over a formidable botanical knowledge. Having comprehended our location, he decided we should continue around the mountain. Disappointed and slightly bruised from my earlier fruitless encounter, I reticently agreed. As we scrambled precariously between trees and improbably perched undergrowth, he disappeared from sight and earshot, only to appear minutes later with armfuls of natural herbs. The Master was an artist, entirely in tune with his palette and canvas. Unlike myself, who was clomping belligerently through the thicketed hillside, my eyes greedily fixed to the ground, he skipped energetically from point to point with the effortless appearance of a mountain goat. Pausing to take in the surroundings, he would rummage around and re-emerge with a diverse selection of greenery. His ability to find other herbs in abundance, however, contradicted the nature of our coveted conquest. Wild mountain ginseng earns its value because it is so rare, and the conditions it requires are so specific.
The Master’s ability to find other herbs in abundance, however, contradicted the nature of our coveted conquest. Wild mountain ginseng earns its value because it is so rare, and the conditions it requires are so specific.
Sansam is very particular about the soil in which it grows. It has to be damp—but not wet—and it must not receive direct sunlight. It likes to reside among a mix of coniferous and deciduous trees, which attests to the level of moisture in the soil and affect its acidity. It is found in the mountains where the weather is slightly cooler, and because of temperature they are confined to strict geographical zones. This area consists mainly of the upper two-thirds of the Korean peninsula along with adjacent areas of Manchuria and Russia, as well as Japan. The conditions formed through the combination of all these factors allow for the development of the intricate and branch-like roots of the wild mountain ginseng. Needless to say, fitting all of these pieces together to recognise a potential gold mine is somewhat tricky.
As the day progressed I found myself becoming obsessively consumed in our hunt. I began to sense the dips and curves of the mountain and gain an awareness of the soil and foliage which might point to our treasure. Hours passed as we scoured seemingly every foot of the mountain, the ridges and forest, confusing any remaining sense of orientation. For this we had to trust our Simmani Master. At one point I came across what seemed a perfect location and paced up and down backwards and forwards, the blisters on my weary feet causing a wince at every step. A shout indicated that we were moving onwards before I could conclude my search, and with regret I began heading towards the noise. Transfixed on the ground, I spotted a deodeok (더덕), a less valuable but related root. I carefully excavated with my fingers and cupped hands to remove the dirt from around my find. To my surprise it was a mature plant, its thickness and length indicating it was perhaps 10 years old. Grasping my trophy I hurried off frustrated, knowing that its presence suggested the perfect conditions for the legendary sansam.
As the sun set and the day drew to a close, we descended a long sculpted ridge to the rocky Hongcheon River which flanked the mountain. This area of Gangwon Province is renowned for its beauty and the river is famous for its red hue. As we trudged the final few kilometres, the picturesque scenery was the only thing that helped fend off encroaching exhaustion. Although we had not returned with the prize we had set out and spent 11 long hours searching for, the vividness of the experience gave the sensation of success. We had learned that the revered sansam will not be found without effort and preparation, and we could now identify and separate wild and naturally occurring herbs. But most rewardingly, that day we had escaped the beaten path and begun to understand the subtle signals of nature.
Note: Hongcheon is just 90 minutes from Seoul and can be reached by car or public transport, directly or via Chuncheon. For those who want to escape the crowds found on Seoul’s major peaks, the area provides excellent hiking in a quiet but accessible location. Currently there are no English language books about Wild Mountain Ginseng in Korea, but I can provide further information on request.