Ginseng, The Next Gold Rush

This funky-looking root fetches up to $1,000 an ounce in some markets, sparking a frenzy of harvesting and in some cases, poaching.
7:28 | 10/27/15

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Transcript for Ginseng, The Next Gold Rush
We begin tonight with the race to riches that might surprise you. It's all because of a humble root. May not look pretty but sells for a pretty penny. Now everybody wants in, including poachers and illegal harvesters. My "Nightline" coanchor juju Chang joined the dangerous journey on the hunt to strike gold. Reporter: In the backwoods of West Virginia in what my guide calls hillbilly country, we are on a hunt. Where are we? What mountains are we in? Appalachian. Reporter: We're with mountain man Rufus Kuehne, searching for something that's been part of the appalachian culture for hundreds of years. Part of its history. Daniel Boone was digging it out of Kentucky, got $80,000 out of what he dug. Reporter: Now worth its weight in gold. Then out of the blue -- there it is. Right there by your feet. All of this is ginseng. There's the three prongs. See all these? That's amazing. Jimmy: Ginseng. Reporter: A plant root long considered a natural aphrodisiac and cure-all in Asia. It's been highly coveted there for thousands of years. Oh my goodness, look at that. Reporter: I grew up hearing about its mythical properties from my very Korean parents. I grew up hearing about all the fabulous, miraculous ginseng cures. So this is the body, the stalk. The gnarly roots are desirable? Right. Reporter: This root can retail up to $15,000 per pound in upscale asian boutiques. And it's set off a black market. Investigators in West Virginia confiscating more than 400 pounds of illegally harvested ginseng over the past few years. They say its street value, over $5 million. And along with it, all sorts of other contraband. Ginseng hunting, as the locals call it singing, is legal as long as it's done properly at the right time of year. But with prices so high the cash crop can attract unsavory characters. Oh my god, you have a shotgun. Reporter: Tony Kaufmann and his family started dealing in ginseng in the 19520s. He's a classic middleman. Oh my goodness. Do I really want to do this? Oh my gosh. This is like monopoly money. Holy mackerel. You know they have banks? Reporter: When the asian economies were soaring two years back, Tony had a banner year. We probably did close to a couple million dollars we handed out to the public. A couple million dollars walking around in West Virginia? That's pretty good. Reporter: Ginseng grows wild from south appalachia to Canada. The ginseng gold rush is causing a huge problem for law enforcement who are tracking down on illegal harvesting. What are we seeing here? This is huge amounts of ginseng. Yeah. It's thousands and thousands and thousands of plants that will never be able to reproduce this year. Reporter: This illegal ginseng, seized from poachers, is harvested from fragile plants on public lands, out of season, destroying the roots forever, and threatening wild ginseng with extinction. How seriously do you take this offense? Pretty seriously. If things keep going at the rate they're going, within 10, 15 years we won't have any ginseng left. So they're putting a pretty good hurt on it. Reporter: They use former ginseng poachers as confidential informants to turn the tide. It would scare you if you knew what I made. Reporter: We agreed not to show his face and to alter his voice. It's not the diggers that's really killing this, it's the people buying it. Because they're funding their drugs. I mean, a lot of the people in these communities are selling their ginseng for drugs. Trading for pills. You know. These guys will take a pound of dried ginseng and trade it for dope. Reporter: The popularity of reality shows like "Duck dynasty" has made hillbilly culture trendy. Authorities say shows like "Smoky mountain money" -- Make piles of money if you do it right. It's a gold mine. Reporter: And "Appalachian outlaws" on the history channel -- The first man that finds it and digs it, that's who it belongs to, and that's going to be me. Reporter: Are fanning the flames of the appalachian ginseng gold rush. All that's ginseng. My mother would be thrilled to be here right now. It's wild. Reporter: Rufus Kuehne, born and bred in these mountains, is one of the colorful characters on "Appalachian outlaws." This is pretty good sized. Reporter: His family has lived on this land since the 1800s. Now he lives in fear of ginseng poachers. How do you protect your property? It's hard to. Somebody's got to stay here all the time. If I go somewhere, my wife has to be here. We can't leave. You don't leave the property intended? No, we left last time to go to Georgia because her daddy had a heart attack in '97. I had Seng in here that was this tall all over the place. In three days while we was gone they dug it all up. Reporter: Rufus is in the long haul, hoping this will act as a nest egg for his grandkids. It will probably be 15, 20 years before I think about harvesting. Whoa, where's this one from? Reporter: Ginseng, worth about $450 a pound in west Virginia, ultimately commands sky-high prices in places like ginseng and herb in New York City. Depending on quality, it can sell for $15,000 a pound. Because according to traditional Chinese doctors, it cures just about anything. You're making it sound like it's a cure-all. Ginseng is like a top medicine in all the Chinese M Medici medicine. Reporter: So far there's little science to back that up. Do I chew on it. You will feel a little bit bitter, between bitter and sweet. Later on, later on that sweet comes back. You sound like a sommelier. Reporter: Ginseng is big business. But for three generations of the Anderson family back in west Virginia, it is a mystical link with the past. The cherokee believed that only those worthy of finding it were able to see it. That ginseng possessed this ability to hide itself from those not worthy of finding it. Reporter: Kevin is teaching his kids how to harvest responsibility, just as his dad taught him. You're only harvesting mature plants, mature roots. You're leaving the other ones for future generations. Reporter: The money is secondary. I dug some but not much. They dug most of it. Family outing, $324.80. Good deal, okay. Reporter: His daughter Sam already knows what she's going to do with her share of the profits. I always use it for charity. Reporter: For "Nightline," I'm juju Chang in fayette county, West Virginia.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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