Where in the United States Does Wild Ginseng Root Grow?
Did you know that wild ginseng root can actually be found right here in America's national parks and private woodlands? Here I'll briefly discuss the history of the North American ginseng (panax ginseng) plant. I'll also address the problem many National Parks are facing—ginseng poaching—as well some alternatives to poaching, such as licensed harvesting or, even better, growing your own.
Ginseng root, revered for its ability to give energy, lower cholesterol levels, enhance strength, and reduce stress, has been cultivated and used in China for over three thousand years. Ginseng is only found in the Northern Hemisphere, and the countries that grow it include North America, Korea, Manchuria, and Siberia (although Siberian ginseng does not contain ginsenosides). American ginseng is very similar to Chinese ginseng—both have high ginsenosides levels—and is very much sought after in China. Ginseng was actually one of the first marketable herbs in the US, starting back in 1860 when Wisconsin shipped 120 tons of wild ginseng root to China!
American ginseng was especially widespread along the Eastern Coast of the US, but, due to its popularity (and selling price on the black market), it has been over-harvested (especially in the 1970s). It is illegal to take ginseng from any national park, and national parks are dealing with poachers by giving stiff fines and even jail time to those who get caught. However, some states do allow harvesting and exporting during certain times of the year and with the necessary licenses. Wild American ginseng root can sell for anywhere between 400-800 dollars per pound. The most sought-after roots are shaped like a man, with a thick "body" with leg-like roots extending from it. These "man roots" are carried in the pockets of the superstitious for good luck! WildGrown.com is an excellent website that explains proper ginseng harvesting "stewardship" practices as well as which states allow harvesting and exporting.
A Note on Safety
Be very sure you know what ginseng looks like before you go and attempt to harvest it. An adult ginseng plant will have the following characteristics:
- It will have two to four prongs with five leaves on each prong. Each prong grows from the same point on the main stem of the plant.
- It will not be taller than 14 inches.
- When it is ready to be cultivated it will have a red flower in the center (see my header pic).
People have mistakenly harvested and consumed water hemlock, resulting in illness or death. One man in Maine took three bites of this poisonous plant root and died.
Water hemlock will have the following characteristics:
- It will have white flowers.
- It can grow to be several feet high.
- Each leaf is made of several small, ridged leaflets. The leaves do not all grow from the same point on the stem.
So it's easy to distinguish between the two if you know what you're looking for, but the roots look similar, as shown above.
National Parks Cracking Down on Poachers
Some of the national parks heaviest hit by poaching are in Kentucky (Cumberland Gap) and the Smoky National Forest in North Carolina and Tennessee. But park rangers are stepping up to protect this diminishing resource—poaching ginseng carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and/or a $5,000 fine, and courts often rule for both jail time and a fine in order to discourage future ginseng removal. My advice, if you go hunting for ginseng, is to stick to private land areas and to make sure to plant your seeds as you pick the root, so that future generations of this plant can grow.
How to Recognize Ginseng
Ginseng grows close to the ground and has distinctive leaves that are each made up of five leaflets—two small leaflets closest to the center of the plant flanking three large leaflets. Young plants will usually have three leaves while older plants will have more. Each leaf grows from the same place on the stem. Ginseng berries are bright red and oblong.
Grow Your Own
Here's an even better idea: Grow your own! There are many sites explaining how to do this; one of my favorites is hardingsginsengfarm.com, which explains the benefits of growing "wild-simulated" ginseng. But be patient, as it can take four to eight years from when a ginseng seed is planted for it to mature. The best advice is to start out small and continue to build your harvest area as you become more successful. Every time you harvest a ginseng plant, immediately plant the red seeds from the flower so that future plants will grow.
Where It Grows Best
If You're Planning to Plant
Only 19 states allow people to grow and harvest ginseng, so do your homework. All of these states except for Illinois require the plant to be at least five years old with three leaves before they can be harvested; Illinois necessitates that they are 10 years old with four leaves.
Ginseng Growing Conditions
Ginseng grows best in soil that is:
- Cool (in a shady area in a region that gets cold winters)
The best way to tell if it's a good spot to plant ginseng is by looking at what already grows in the area. If you see other ginseng plants or one of ginseng's companion plants (which is more likely, as ginseng is becoming increasingly rare in the wild), it's likely a good spot. Here are some companion species that indicate a good location:
- Black walnut
- Maidenhair fern
- Rattlesnake fern
- Solomon's seal
- Stinging nettle
- Sugar maples
- Tulip poplar
- Wild ginger
- Wild yam
The other way to tell if it's a good spot to plant ginseng is to test the soil to see if it is high in calcium (3,000-4,000 pounds of calcium per acre). Check nearby universities to see if they can help you with a soil analysis, as at-home kits can be tricky. If you do not have enough calcium in the ground, you can fertilize the area with gypsum.
How to Grow Ginseng from Seed
If this is your first time growing ginseng, be sure to purchase stratified seeds that will be delivered in the late fall. If you cannot plant them immediately after delivery, keep them in the refrigerator in a plastic bag and mist them once a week with a spray bottle filled with water so that they do not dry out.
The best way to plant ginseng is the wild-simulated method. In this method, you try to find a place where ginseng once naturally grew, and leave nature to its devices. Now that you have found a likely spot for the ginseng, clear the area of small plants and ferns so that there is no competition for nutrients or light and rake the leaves to the side. Use a hoe to rake furrows into the ground—if a slope is present, rake the furrows so that they go up the slope, rather than parallel to it. Plant the seeds about six inches apart on the surface of the ground. You want to ensure that all seeds are in contact with the dirt, then cover them with the leaves you had previously raked.
From this point on, there's little for you to do but wait! Some plants will die of natural causes, but if the site is suited to ginseng and poachers are kept at bay, there will be a handful of strong, healthy plants at the end.
How Long Does It Take to Grow?
Using this method will result in mature ginseng within eight years. There are labor-intensive methods to grow ginseng in a field that will result in mature ginseng within four years, but these are not recommended for anyone growing ginseng in a backyard garden.
Best of luck with your wild-simulated ginseng!