— -- In the back woods of West Virginia, mountain man Rufus Keeney is searching for a valuable prize -- something that's been a part of Appalachian culture for hundreds of years.
After a few minutes of looking through a wooded hill, Keeney points to a wild patch of green leaves boasting clusters of red berries, connected to an underground network of knotted, ugly roots that are now worth their weight in gold.
"Ginseng," he said, pointing to the plants.
The root, long considered a natural aphrodisiac and a cure-all in Asia, has been highly coveted for thousands of years for its mythical properties. Traditional Chinese doctors claim it can cure a number of ailments, although there is not enough science to confirm the most dramatic claims.
American ginseng, which grows from southern Appalachia to Canada, has become a cash crop. One root can retail in exotic Asian boutiques from a couple hundred dollars to $1,000 an ounce, which has led to poaching in some instances.
Tony Coffman said his family started dealing in ginseng in the 1920s. He is somewhat of a "ginseng broker," a classic middleman in the trade, and he keeps a shotgun within reach in case of a break-in. When the Asian markets for ginseng soared two years ago, Coffman said he had a banner year selling close to 1,000 pounds of the root, which he said brought in "a couple million dollars."
But the ginseng rush is causing a huge problem for law enforcement throughout the Eastern United States as they try to crack down on illegal harvesting.
"It's thousands and thousands and thousands of plants that will never be able to reproduce this year," said Lt. Marshall Richards with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.
Only 19 states have a designated state-approved ginseng harvest season and it's illegal to harvest ginseng in national parks, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Almost all of those states require wild ginseng to have at least three leaves to be harvested to ensure the plant is as least five years old -– mature plants have leaves made up of three to five "leaflets."
"If things keep going at the rate they're going, within 10, 15 years we won't have any ginseng left," Richards said. "So they're putting a pretty good hurt on it."
Over the last few years, West Virginia natural resources officials say they have confiscated more than 400 pounds of illegally-obtained ginseng with a retail value of more than $5 million. And with illegally-harvested ginseng sometimes comes other types of contraband.
"If you look at the illegal ginseng and most of the people that are buying it early are also dealing in pills," Richards said. "A lot of the people that are buying early are trading it for pills. Illegal guns, stolen guns, stolen property -- once you get into these, you’ll end up with a lot of ginseng and then you'll also end up with a lot of drugs and some of the firearms."
Richards and his team use confidential informants to help control the ongoing problem in West Virginia.
"These guys go through and they'll dig 2-year-old plants, and we call them 'lonies,'" said one informant who asked that his identity not be revealed. "There'll be a hundred lonies in an area like this and they'll dig the whole thing. And it's not the diggers that's really killing this, it's the people that's buying it because they're funding their drugs."
Law enforcement believe that the popularity of recent so-called hillbilly reality shows such as, "Smoky Mountain Money" on the National Geographic Channel and "Appalachian Outlaws" on the History Channel, is encouraging the ginseng gold rush.
Rufus Keeney, who was born and raised in these mountains, is one of the characters on "Appalachian Outlaws." He said his family has lived in West Virginia since the 1800s, but now he lives in fear of ginseng poachers and said it's hard to protect his property.
"Somebody's got to stay here all the time. If I go somewhere, my wife has to be here. We can't leave," he said. "We left the last time to go to Georgia because her daddy had a heart attack in '97 and I had 'seng in here, it was this tall, all over the place. And they come in here three days while we was gone, and they dug it all."
But Keeney continues to plant and harvest ginseng, and said he hopes the roots he planted this year will become a nest egg for his children.
Kevin Andersen, another West Virginian, is teaching his children how to harvest the roots, just as he had been taught years ago. But for Andersen, the money his family gets from selling ginseng is secondary to preserving it, as his daughter Sam already knows well.
"I always use it for charity," she said. "Last year I got $20 and right before Christmas on Christmas Eve, I went to the children's hospital and we bought presents with that money and we gave it to the children that couldn't spend Christmas at home. And this year I got $35 so I’m going to use it again for charity."