Seo Min-seok, 55, was a pipe fitter before he became a "mountain ginseng… (Matt Douma, For The Times )
Reporting from Palgong Mountain, South Korea — The hunters kneel before a tiny altar of fresh persimmons, paper cups of alcohol and burning incense, bowing three times to solicit permission from the mountain god to enter the forest.
Moments later, they're scaling a slippery hillside, far from any trail, with the sure footing of mountain Sherpas. Carrying binoculars, wielding their long scythes as walking sticks, Seo Min-seok and a partner scan the forest floor for secret untrammeled places.
Soon, under the cross of two felled trees, they encounter a small plant, its leaves a telltale late-autumn yellow. They circle the specimen cautiously, with the excitement of archaeologists at a potentially significant find, pulling back the soil to reveal the sinewy roots.
PHOTOS: On the hunt for wild ginseng
They lift the trophy to the light: wild ginseng, a commodity so precious it's known as green gold, with larger plants selling for as much as $100,000 each. (Cash-strapped North Korea has even offered to settle part of its debts to the Czech Republic with payments of ginseng.)
In this Korean version of Europe's high-stakes truffle hunt, Seo's small plant is a valuable find that will bring $500 on the region's billion-dollar wild ginseng market.
For centuries, the herb's fragile root has been revered across Asia as a cure-all with medicinal and rejuvenating powers. But it's the wild variety, believed to have many times the potency of cultivated plants, that makes Seo's heart race.
"Even now, my hands shake when I find a plant," he says. "Usually I'm so nervous I can't dig it up myself. I let my buddy do it because I know I'd butcher the job."
For the 55-year-old former pipe fitter and thousands of others known as shimmani, or "mountain ginseng person," the pursuit has become a way of life. He's obsessed with the plant and its intricate root system, which resembles a freeze frame of lightning spread across the sky.
Seo is president of the Korean Wild Ginseng Hunters Assn., a shimmani master who offers the herb the respect he would an ancestor. "Wild ginseng raised my children, bought my house, built my business," he says. "He's like a father to me. He paid my way."
The search for wild ginseng remains steeped in ancient mysticism, with many shimmani leaving offerings to the mountain god of ginseng. When possible, they hunt in odd-numbered groups for good luck and avoid eating meat or sleeping with spouses before entering the backcountry.
Yet, in recent years, as values have soared, the hunt has taken on a decidedly unspiritual taint, bringing out humanity's worst traits. Ginseng fever has ended friendships and spawned rifts between family members. Cases of poaching, double-dealing and plant theft are rampant.
What once was a gentleman's agreement awarding ownership to a plant's first spotter has disintegrated into chaos, with groups fighting like hunters scrapping to claim a wounded deer. Some wonder if there are bodies hidden in the woods, the result of a ginseng dispute gone wrong.
There's another problem: Harvesting wild ginseng is illegal in South Korea, which in 2004 enacted safeguards to protect a plant in danger of extinction.
But the thrill of tracking nature's subtle trail to strike forest gold is well worth the risk of arrest, insists Seo, who lives in Daegu city, 150 miles southeast of Seoul.
He suggests that his relationship with the forest goes beyond any government intervention. Veteran shimmani, he says, have a lineage that goes back centuries and earns respect even from forest rangers, who he says allow most to hunt in peace.
Yet Seo has other enemies in the wild ginseng world. In 2004, before the passage of the anti-hunting law, he launched a campaign to demystify the herb with a website showing ways to detect a valuable plant.
His press interviews helped swell the number of amateur ginseng hunters to a million or more, leading many shimmani to accuse Seo of breaking an unwritten code of silence. "Many hate me now," he says.
The many forest newcomers also make Seo uneasy. He worries about the ginseng he's planted in the forest to replicate the wild variety. Although less valuable than indigenous ginseng, the domesticated plants still make him money.
"Even as I speak," he says, "someone could be out there, stealing my ginseng."
Seo grew up in a village obsessed with wild ginseng, with nearly all of its 45 families drawn to the forest. As a teen, he fell for the spirit of the hunt, studying the sought-after herb. He learned that wild ginseng — sansam in Korean — is choosy about its milieu, preferring the east-facing mountain slopes in forest that's damp but not wet, bright but out of direct sunlight.
In 2000, Seo left his job after netting $100,000 in ginseng profits, including $75,000 that buyers paid for two roots alone.