Finding American Ginseng in Eastern Forests

 American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius, L.) is a perennial herb that grows under a portion of the deciduous forest canopies of the eastern United States. Wild ginseng once thrived throughout most of the nation's eastern seaboard. Because of a demand for ginseng root, which is mainly used for its healing and curative properties, ginseng may be over-harvested and has attained endangered species status in some locations. Ginseng diggers are constantly encouraged to abide by all laws, leave young seedlings and plant all mature seeds. Because of concerned hunters, this non-timber forest product is making a serious comeback in some locations.

Harvesting of "wild" ginseng is legal but only during a specific season defined by your state. It is also illegal to dig ginseng for export if the plant is less than 10 years old (CITES regs). The season is usually the autumn months and requires you to be aware of other federal regulations for harvesting on their lands. Currently, 18 states issue licenses to export it.

Identifying American Ginseng

Ginseng plant with berries
(J. Paul Moore/Photolibrary/Getty Images)

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) can be most easily identified by its three-pronged (or more) five-leaflet display of the mature plant.

W. Scott Persons, in "American Ginseng, Green Gold," says the best way to identify "sang" during the digging season is to look for the red berries. These berries plus the unique yellowing leaves toward the end of the season make excellent field markers.

Harvesting American Ginseng Seed

American Ginseng Seed
American Ginseng Seed. (Steve Nix)

Wild ginseng plants are generally started from seed grown on a five year or older plant. Younger ginseng plants don't create many, if any, viable seed and should be protected and passed over for harvest. Wild "sang" hunters are strongly encouraged to plant the mature, crimson seeds they find back in the general area after harvesting a plant.

The fall planted ginseng seeds will germinate but not during the following spring. The stubborn ginseng seed needs a dormant period of between 18 and 21 months to germinate. American ginseng seeds will only sprout during their second spring. The ginseng seed has to "age" for at least a year in a damp soil and experience the warm/cold sequence of the seasons.

Failure of the ginseng hunter to harvest and plant the ripe crimson berries can also lead to excessive losses from critters like rodents and birds. A good ginseng root collector will select all the mature seeds he or she finds and plant them at a productive location, usually near the seed-bearing plant that has been removed. That location has proven its ability to grow ginseng and would make a great seed bed.

Finding a Mature American Ginseng

A Mature Ginseng
A Mature Ginseng. (Steve Nix)

First-year ginseng seedlings produce only one compound leaf with three leaflets and should always be left to grow. That single leaf is the only above-ground growth the first year and the root is only about 1 inch long and 1/4 inches wide. Ginseng and development of the ginseng root has yet to reach maturity through its first five years. Plants younger than five years old are not marketable and should not be harvested.

The ginseng plant is deciduous and drops its leaves late in the fall. During spring warm up a small rhizome or "neck" develops at the top of the root with a regeneration bud at the apex of the rhizome. New leaves will emerge from this regeneration bud.

As the plant ages and grows more leaves, typically having five leaflets, development continues until the fifth year. A mature plant is 12 to 24 inches tall and has 4 or more leaves, each consisting of 5 ovate leaflets. Leaflets are approximately 5 inches long and oval-shaped with serrated edges. In mid-summer, the plant produces inconspicuous greenish-yellow clustered flowers. The mature fruit is a pea-sized crimson berry, generally containing 2 wrinkled seeds.

After five years of growth, the roots begin to attain a marketable size (3 to 8 inches long by 1/4 to 1 inches thick) and weight approximately 1 oz. In older plants, the root usually weighs more, are enhanced by form and much more valuable.

American Ginseng's Favorite Habitat

ginseng plants in forest
(Steve Nix)

Here is a photo of adequate "sang" habitat where ginseng plants are now growing. This site is a mature hardwood stand where the terrain is sloping to the north and east. Panax quinquefolium loves a moist but well-drained and thick litter layer with more than just a tad of undergrowth. You will find yourself looking at a lot of other species of plants thinking they may be the prize. A young hickory or Virginia creeper will confuse the beginner.

So, American ginseng grows in shady woodlands with rich soils. Ginseng is found predominately in the Appalachian region of the United States that provides the natural cold/warm cycle so important in preparing the seed for germination. Panax quinquefolius' range includes the eastern half of North America, from Quebec to Minnesota and south to Georgia and Oklahoma.

Digging American Ginseng

Digging Ginseng
Digging Ginseng. (Steve Nix)

Some ginseng diggers harvest ginseng after the fifth year of germinating from seed, but quality improves as the plant ages. A new federal CITES regulation now puts a 10-year legal harvest age on ginseng roots collected for export. Harvesting at an earlier age can be done in many states but only for domestic use. Virtually none of the remaining ginseng plants in the wild are 10 years old.

The roots are dug in the fall and vigorously washed to remove surface soil. It is important to handle the roots carefully to keep the branching forks intact and maintain the natural color and circular markings.

The above photo shows a seedling that is too small for harvest. This ginseng plant is 10" tall with only one prong. Leave it for as long as practicable (10 years if sold for export). The metal tool is also not appropriate as it could damage the root. Professional hunters actually use sharpened and flattened sticks to gently "grub" up the entire root.

Start your digging several inches away from the base of the ginseng stem. Try to work your stick under the root to gradually loosen the soil.

W. Scott Persons in "American Ginseng, Green Gold" suggests you follow these four rules when digging:

  1. Only dig mature plants.
  2. Only dig after the seeds turn dark red. 
  3. Dig carefully. 
  4. Plant back some of the seeds.

Preparing the American Ginseng Root

ginseng root
Freshly dug ginseng root. (Katie Trozzo/Flikr/CC BY-ND 2.0)

Ginseng roots should be dried on wire-netting shelves in a heated, well-ventilated room. Since overheating destroys color and texture, begin drying the roots at a temperature between 60 and 80 F for the first few days, then gradually increase it to about 90 F for three to six weeks. Turn the drying roots frequently. Store the roots in a dry, airy, rodent-proof container just above freezing.

The shape and age of a ginseng root influences its marketability. A root that resembles a person is fairly rare and worth a lot of money. The most marketable roots are old, variously shaped and forked, moderate in size, stubby but tapering, off-white, light in weight but firm when dried, and have numerous, closely formed rings of wrinkles.

Exported American ginseng roots are sold mainly to the Chinese market. There is also a growing domestic market as people are using more and more ginseng as an herbal product.

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Nix, Steve. "Finding American Ginseng in Eastern Forests." ThoughtCo, Oct. 20, 2017, thoughtco.com/finding-american-ginseng-in-eastern-forests-1342659. Nix, Steve. (2017, October 20). Finding American Ginseng in Eastern Forests. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/finding-american-ginseng-in-eastern-forests-1342659 Nix, Steve. "Finding American Ginseng in Eastern Forests." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/finding-american-ginseng-in-eastern-forests-1342659 (accessed January 23, 2018).