Identifying the Age of an American Ginseng Plant

Hands holding several ginseng plants.

Eugene Kim / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

American ginseng was understood to be a significant healing herb in America as early as the 18th century. Panax quinquefolius became one of the first non-timber forest products (NTFP) to be collected in the colonies and was found in plenty through the Appalachian region and later in the Ozarks.

Ginseng is still a much sought-after botanical in North America but has been heavily harvested. It has been locally scarce due to habitat destruction. The plant is now increasing in rarity throughout the United States and Canada. Collection of the plant is legally limited by season and quantity in many forests.

01
of 03

Easy Identification

Textbook illustration of the ginseng plant.

Jacob Bigelow (1786-1879), text and coloured engravings / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

This image used to help in the plant's identification was drawn nearly 200 years ago by Jacob Bigelow (1787-1879) and published in a medical botanical book called "American Medical Botany."

02
of 03

Identification of Panax Quinquefolius

Devil's Club (Oplopanax horridus) or American ginseng.
Ernest Manewal / Getty Images

American ginseng develops just one "pronged" leaf with several leaflets the first year. A maturing plant will continue to increase the number of prongs. As you can see in the Bigelow illustration of a mature plant that displays three prongs, each has five leaflets (two small, three large). All leaflet edges are finely toothed or serrated. The Bigelow print exaggerates the serration sizes from what I have normally seen.

Note that these prongs radiate out of a central peduncle, which is at the leaf end of a green stem and also supports a raceme (lower left on the illustration) that develops flowers and seed. The green non-woody stem can help you identify the plant from similar-looking brown woody-stemmed plants like Virginia creeper and seedling hickory. Early summer brings flowers that develop into a brilliant red seed in the fall. It takes about three years for the plant to begin to produce these seeds and this will continue for the rest of its life.

W. Scott Persons, in his book "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.

These berries naturally drop from wild ginseng and regenerate new plants. There are two seeds in each red capsule. Collectors are encouraged to scatter these seeds near any plant that is collected. Dropping these seeds near its collected parent will ensure future seedlings in a suitable habitat.

Mature ginseng is harvested for its unique root and collected for many reasons, including medicinal and cooking purposes. This valuable root is fleshy and can have the appearance of a human leg or arm. Older plants have roots in human shapes, which inspired common names like man root, five fingers, and the root of life. The rhizome often develops multiple root forks shape as it ages past five years.

03
of 03

Determining the Age of Panax Quinquefolius

Panax Quinquefolius plant growing from the ground.

Charles T. Bryson, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Here are two ways you can estimate the age of wild ginseng plants before you harvest. You must be able to do this to abide by any legal harvest age limit and to assure an adequate future crop. The two methods are: (1) by leaf prong count and (2) by rhizome leaf scar count at the root neck.

Leaf prong count method: Ginseng plants can have from one to as many as four palmately compound leaf prongs. Each prong can have as few as three leaflets but most will have five leaflets and should be considered mature plants. So, plants with three leaf prongs are legally considered to be at least five years old. Many states with wild ginseng harvest programs have regulations in place that prohibit the harvest of plants with fewer than three prongs and assumed to be less than five years old.

Leaf scar count method: The age of a ginseng plant can also be determined by counting the number of stem scars off the rhizome/root neck attachment. Each year of plant growth adds a stem scar to the rhizome after every stem dies back in the fall. These scars can be seen by carefully removing the soil around the area where the plant's rhizome joins the fleshy root. Count the stem scars on the rhizome. A five-year-old Panax will have four stem scars on the rhizome. Carefully cover your below-ground root digging with soil.

Sources

Bigelow, Jacob. "American Medical Botany: Being a Collection of the Native Medicinal Plants, Vol. 3." Classic Reprint, Paperback, Forgotten Books, June 23, 2012.

Persons, W. Scott. "American Ginseng: Green Gold." Exposition Press.