Ginseng Plant Profile

American ginseng in woodland setting, with red berries

tim / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Ginseng is a plant notable for its healing properties, and its long time association with some of the world's most ancient healing traditions. There are two varieties of ginseng that are the most commonly used medicinally: Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), which is native to Manchuria and Korea, and has a long history of medicinal use (in tea and drug form) in China, Korea, and Japan. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) grows throughout the US and parts of Canada, from Quebec and Manitoba to the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico. It is also used as a traditional medicine, but the bulk of the crop is dried and exported to Hong Kong, where it is processed into a spice used throughout Southeast Asia.

Because of its value in the world marketplace, there are strict laws in the United States about harvesting ginseng where it grows in the wild, and if caught, people who harvest it can be fined in some states. Native ginseng is now fairly rare to encounter in the wild, due to loss of habitat to development and invasive woodland plants such as garlic mustard, as well as over-harvesting by humans and overgrazing by exploding deer populations in many areas.

Botanical Name Panax quinquefolius
Common Name American Ginseng
Plant Type Deciduous perennial
Mature Size 8 to 16 inches tall
Sun Exposure Partial shade to shade
Soil Type Rich, moist, organic, good drainage
Soil pH 6.0 to 6.5
Bloom Time Late June to July
Flower Color greenish white
Hardiness Zones 3 to 7
Native Area Deciduous forests from Midwest to Maine, Appalachian and Ozark regions, Eastern Canada
Ginseng plants in the wild along a rock wall in woodland setting
This patch of American ginseng is growing alongside a hiking trail.  EastTennesseeDude / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Growing Ginseng

Although it is protected in the wild, ginseng can be cultivated in a woodland setting, and indeed some forest farmers have successfully grown ginseng as a cash crop on property they own. Even private property growers, however, must adhere to legal harvesting windows, roughly between late August and mid-December, to help protect this endangered plant. Ginseng should not be harvested before plants are at least three years old. Woodland understory plants that indicate a suitable growing area for ginseng include mayapple, jack-in-the-pulpit, Solomon’s seal, trillium, bloodroot, lady’s slipper, black cohosh, baneberry, spicebush, jewelweed, ferns, wild yam, pea vines, Indian turnips, goldenseal, and wild ginger. Understory plants should be left to grow alongside the ginseng, but it's not a bad idea to thin them if they start to crowd the ginseng. Ferns may exude toxins that kill adjacent ginseng plants, so removing them is advised.

Light

Ginseng grows best in partial to full shade, under woodland canopy. Too much sunlight can increase competition from other plants. For this reason, longer-lived tree species (such as sugar maple, black walnut, and tulip poplar) that have fuller leaf canopies make for better ginseng habitat than short-lived species. A forest or woodland site with seventy-five percent shade is recommended.

Soil

Ginseng grows best in soil that is moist and well-drained, with plenty of organic matter and calcium (the trees mentioned above release calcium into the soil). The site should not be too wet, so flat sites that have a history of flooding are not suitable. Leaf litter is good natural mulch and nutrient for ginseng so choose s pot where leaf litter is plentiful. Ginseng will not grow in heavy compacted or clay soil.

Water

Ginseng likes a moist soil and its preference for shady sites means it receives adequate moisture from its surroundings. It's important when planting to choose a spot that mimics ginseng's preferred native locations. Adding a bit of peat moss and leaf litter compost can help create good drainage and moisture retention. Ginseng will not usually require extra watering except in drought conditions.

Temperature and Humidity

Ginseng doesn't like hot temperatures, and should not be grown in zones higher than 7. Humidity in woodland settings remains fairly consistent, and ginseng should not be planted in sites that stay too damp or that are subject to standing water or flooding in the rainy season.

Fertilizer

If you choose a sit with good rich soil, fertilizer should not be necessary for ginseng plants, and may in fact overburden them and affect their healthy growth.

Planting Ginseng

Planting ginseng can be a somewhat complex process and experts adhere to several different methods. It's beyond the scope of this article to go over these methods in detail so we suggest doing a bit of research to find a method that works best for your needs. Some recommend planting by scattering seed, and some by scattering seed individually. Because ginseng is happier to grow naturally, as opposed to cultivation, it's important to learn how it mimics its native habitat and conditions if you want to grow it successfully. A basic rule of thumb is to plant the seeds about three inches apart, covering loosely with 3/4 inches of soil.

Propagating Ginseng

The only way to propagate ginseng is to grow from seed; you cannot grow a new plant from a cutting or root. Seeds should be stratified before planting.

Toxicity

Ginseng is considered safe and non toxic, and none of the plant parts are harmful to humans or animals.