Ginseng is a long-lived perennial that grows in USDA zones 3 to 8.
Ginseng is a member of the Araliaceae family and grows in the deciduous forests in the mountains of the eastern United States and Canada. In the United States its range extends from northern Vermont to Georgia and as far west as Minnesota. A beautiful woodland plant, ginseng grows one to one and a half feet tall. The leaves grow off a simple stem that branches off into two-, three-, or sometimes five-pronged plants as the plant ages from year to year. The more branching that occurs, the older the ginseng plants are. The leaves are palmate, primarily composed of five leaflets that are finely toothed with pronounced tips. The ginseng flowers are small and yellowish-green and produce lovely clusters of dark red berries. The roots, sometimes said to look like a little man, are pale yellowish-brown and at maturity measure four to six inches in length.
Ginseng requires very specific growing conditions and needs a cold winter for dormancy. Ginseng also needs at least 70 percent shade to grow and does well in humusy soil that is well drained and has high calcium and phosphorus content. The plants tend to favor growing in places where there is plenty of space and airflow. In the wild, ginseng is found growing in mixed hardwood forests, its ideal habitat. Ginseng requires a good amount of water. It does not tolerate prolonged drought, nor does it grow well in overly wet environments where the roots will tend to rot.
Ginseng can be grown from fresh seeds or rootstock. Plant seeds in late summer or early fall approximately half an inch deep. Seeds will go through a required cold dormancy of winter, stratifying naturally. Be patient! Ginseng takes a long time to germinate, up to one to two years. This slow germination rate is one of the reasons wild populations are at great risk of being harvested out of existence. Recommended seeding rates are approximately ten to fifteen pounds of seed per acre. To plant, rake away leaves and remove major weeds. Plant seeds every three inches in rows that are eighteen inches apart, top-dress with amendments as needed, then restore leaf mulch. After planting leave the bed alone and let nature take her course. Low germination rates and natural factors (such as pests, disease, and weed pressure) will naturally thin the bed. The key to wild simulation is that, once planted, the ginseng is left to the forces of nature to develop and grow like its wild counterparts, creating strong medicine and good roots. Top-dress every two to three years with gypsum and rock phosphate if needed as directed by soil test results, but other than that, leave the tending to Mother Nature.
Ginseng can also be transplanted by rootstock, although it is more expensive to procure rootstock than it is to get seed. Plant roots in the fall with one-foot spacing. Do not till beds as this can damage the delicate fungal hyphae that make up good, fungally dominant forest soils and also damage the roots of surrounding trees. Instead, rake leaves and debris out of beds, plant roots, top-dress with amendments as needed, and replace leaf mulch. Then leave the plants alone until harvest.
Because of highly specific growing conditions, farmers cultivate ginseng under artificial shade (i.e., in shade houses) or in the woods using wild-simulated techniques. Research and the experience of farmers in the United States, Canada, and China show that growing ginseng under artificial shade is more expensive and more labor intensive and has increased disease pressure that often results in a greater dependence on chemical interventions. Another detractor is that roots grown in shade houses tend to fetch lower prices on the market because they are perceived as less desirable than woods-grown or wild. The soil in shade house conditions is primarily bacterially dominant, which is different than the fungally dominant soils found in wild and wild-simulated ginseng habitats. These bacterially dominant soils are more prone to harboring fungal diseases. As a result, more farmers are turning away from shade houses and considering transforming the understory of hardwood forests into woodland beds.
Site selection for a woodland bed is key. The ideal site is northeastern facing, sloped, and located under a canopy of 70 to 75 percent shade. Thick leaf mulch and good drainage are also important. It is highly recommended to companion-plant ginseng with other plants from the woodland communities. Consider interplanting ginseng with goldenseal, Solomon’s seal, wild ginger, and trillium/bethroot. They grow well together, help prevent the spread of disease within the beds, and are all valuable medicinals. In addition to the ecological aspects of site selection, plant woodland beds containing ginseng in secluded, protected areas where poaching (a serious concern) is less likely. Some bigger ginseng operations employ security measures, but this can be expensive and tricky. For smaller farms, careful site selection and discretion are often enough.
When preparing wild-simulated beds the soil is not tilled or double-dug. Instead, the roots grow in the relatively undisturbed soil, as they would in nature. Leaving the soil as undisturbed as possible reduces the spread of disease and replicates more closely wild conditions. That said, it is beneficial to top-dress plants with gypsum and rock phosphate to increase the calcium and phosphorus levels. This helps promote plant growth, root development, and disease resistance. Top-dressing can be done every couple of years. Use soil tests to determine the amount of amendments needed for beds, as soil composition in woodland beds can vary greatly. In general, it is recommended to use five pounds gypsum per one hundred square feet of bed. When using rock phosphate, try to achieve soils that contain approximately ninety-five pounds of phosphorus per acre.
Ginseng root has been used for centuries as a prized adaptogenic herb. Taken as a tonic, ginseng helps the body deal with stress and restores overall health and vitality. Used to treat depletion and exhaustion, ginseng improves physical stamina and athletic performance. It is also used frequently as a reproductive tonic to restore and build sexual chi. Most commonly used in elixirs and extracts, ginseng can also be taken in capsule form or drank in teas.
The roots of ginseng are harvested after at least five seasons of growth. Generally speaking, the more mature the roots are, the higher the price they can be marketed at. Roots should be harvested in the fall after the ginseng plant has produced its berries. Roots are easily dug with a spading fork. Take care not to damage the roots, and keep roots intact for best marketability. Ginseng can grow for a long time (some wild ginseng has been reported to be eighty-plus years old), and it is a good practice to plant and harvest in succession, allowing some plants to continue to grow to a ripe old age and collect seed stock from them. Determining the age of ginseng roots can be performed by counting growth rings on the root crown where the stem emerges.
Postharvest and Drying Considerations
Ginseng is easy to clean and should be kept whole for marketing purposes. Rinse roots free of dirt, but avoid prolonged soaking or tumbling in root washers. This can leach important chemical constituents or break off roots. After washing let the roots drain, then dry whole roots slowly at temperatures of 85 to 95°F. It can take up to two weeks to dry whole roots completely.
Pests and Diseases
Because ginseng roots are pleasant tasting and nutritious, they are a favorite food of rodents and deer. Fungal disease and slugs can also impact ginseng. This is all a part of the natural ecosystem, and when growing wild-simulated ginseng, growers tend to not intervene but instead let natural selection take its course. The key is to set the stage for success through good site selection, companion planting with other woodland herbs, and planting strong, viable ginseng seed or rootstock.
Forty dried pounds of ginseng roots per one-eighth-acre bed. Moisture ratio for ginseng root is 3:1 fresh: dried.
Retail price for one pound organic:
• Dried American ginseng root (cultivated):
$89 to $500+
• Fresh American ginseng root (cultivated):
$25 to $150+
This excerpt is adapted from Jeff and Melanie Carpenter’s book The Organic Medicinal Herb Farmer: The Ultimate Guide to Producing High-Quality Herbs on a Market Scale (Chelsea Green 2015) and is printed with permission from the publisher.