How to Grow and Harvest Ginseng

Get to the root of growing this popular herbal supplement, including tips for planting and harvesting ginseng.

ginseng berries

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Ginseng is a native perennial plant with a fascinating history. Mostly grown for its purported medicinal powers, the plant itself has an unassuming appearance. To grow your own ginseng, you'll need at least three things: a cool shady spot, well-drained humus-rich soil, and consistent moisture. Oh, and one more thing: patience. If your backyard includes an area that mimics this plant's natural woodland habitat, trying your hand at growing this herb can be a rewarding project. And when visitors ask about it, you can regale them with tales of ginseng's storied past.

The plant grows 8-16 inches tall with three to five upright stems, each bearing three to five toothed leaflets. Beginning its second year from seed, tiny whitish green flowers appear in spring. These are followed by attractive bright red berries that ripen in late summer or early fall. It's the root (technically a rhizome) of the plant that is used medicinally, but it can take several years for a decent-sized root to develop.

Ginseng's History

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is a shade-loving perennial, native to North American woodlands and understory habitats east of the Mississippi River. It has been used for centuries by many Native American Nations for its medicinal qualities. A similar species (Panax ginseng) has long been part of Chinese medicine where it is coveted for its powers to strengthen and to heal maladies of all kinds.

Early American settlers found a ready market for dried ginseng roots in China, which commanded a remarkable price. And it grew wild in eastern woodlands. Shortly after the Revolutionary War, the Chinese began importing American ginseng in huge quantities. Many Americans, including Daniel Boone, made a good bit of money selling the wild harvested plant. Records from the Department of Commerce show that between 1821 and 1888 exports of dried American ginseng to China exceeded 300,000 pounds per year (and that's dried!). The money made from sales significantly supplemented the incomes of many rural families. This was the ultimate cash crop—all you had to do was find it.

Unfortunately, American ginseng was overharvested to near extinction in many regions. Laws were enacted to curb poaching on public lands. Today, wild collecting is still permitted (for a price), with guidelines that vary from state to state. Farm-raised ginseng, though not as highly valued as wild ginseng, is a crop that still brings a pretty penny for those who grow it.

Where to Plant Ginseng

"When creating a garden environment for ginseng one may explore its natural habitat and match those conditions and companion plants for its addition in the woodland garden," says Margaret Bloomquist, Research Associate for North Carolina State University's Alternative Crops and Organics Program. she suggests.

Ginseng prefers a high canopy of shade from mixed hardwood trees, a slight slope for drainage, and rich, slightly acidic soil that has a lot of organic matter. If native ferns and wildflowers such as bloodroot, wild ginger, trillium, and foamflower thrive in your shade garden, conditions are probably good for ginseng.

How to Plant Ginseng

To prepare your site, remove low branches of trees to promote air movement and be sure your soil has plenty of incorporated organic matter. Well-composted leaf litter is an excellent addition.

Ginseng can be grown from seed or seedling. "Purchase good quality seed that has been stratified (gone through a cold period) for fastest germination," Bloomquist says. "Seeds should not dry out entirely."

There is an advantage to starting with ginseng seedlings instead of seeds, which "are more widely available these days and may be planted in spring or fall," says Bloomquist. One or two year old seedlings "will speed up the time to maturity, when the root is large enough to harvest, which is a minimum of five years old," says Bloomquist. Growing plants from seed adds a few more years.

Leave about two feet of space between ginseng plants (or any neighboring plant) to ensure good air circulation, since ginseng is subject to diseases when crowded. Keep the plants moist, well mulched, weeded, and inspect them for damage from pests and disease frequently. You may need to protect plants from browsing deer. If slugs are a problem, they can be deterred by using sawdust mulch. The best defense against fungal diseases is good air circulation, but if diseases become an issue, you may need to treat your plants with an organic fungicide.

Can You Grow Ginseng in a Container?

"Ginseng may be grown in a container, especially in its early years and as seedlings," explains Bloomquist. Select a container that has a drainage hole. Use a loamy soil mix and plant your seeds about one-and-a-half inches deep. Site the container in a shady spot, keep it watered, and leave it outdoors in winter. Bloomquist suggests that you "bury [the container] a few inches into the ground and mulch to mimic a wild plant going through a cold period mulched with litter from the fall of autumn leaves."

Seedlings can be transplanted while still fairly young to the woodland garden where they can mature. "Ginseng does not like to be transplanted when older than about two years," says Bloomquist.

Ginseng is not a good choice for growing indoors. "It prefers a well-drained forest soil, good air flow, and needs to go through the cycles of the seasons including cold dormancies, where the leaves and stem of the plant die back to the ground in the fall, to reemerge in the spring," explains Bloomquist.

Harvesting Ginseng

Ginseng is a slow grower, even in the best of conditions. "Ginseng plants may grow for decades and can be aged by counting the neck scars left on the top of the root from each growing season's stem. Plants over 30 years old are common in our region's forests," says Bloomquist.

It will likely be 5-10 years before you can harvest a decent root. Roots should be dug in the fall as the leaves begin to die. Gently wash off your harvested roots, then place them on a screen to dry in a well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight. Rotate them occasionally so they dry evenly. Drying usually takes two to four weeks, although large roots may take longer. Store your roots in a ventilated box or basket.

Buying Ginseng

Stratified seed can be purchased from a number of seed companies such as Territorial Seed Company or Johnny's Selected Seeds for planting in spring or fall. Seedlings may be available for purchase locally from specialty growers.

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