Hunting American Ginseng
The root of the slow-growing ginseng plant has been used in Korean and Chinese herbal medicine for thousands of years, and today the therapeutic qualities of ginseng are prized the world over. In the United States, American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium) grows wild and was used by Native Americans. American ginseng has been harvested and exported to Asia for almost 300 years, and ginseng is still sold to these markets, where the best quality roots can fetch hundreds of dollars per pound. Unfortunately, over-harvesting and improper harvesting have devastated wild ginseng populations in the U.S. While this article describes some harvesting techniques, it is generally recommended that you grow ginseng instead.
- Learn the laws regulating ginseng production and harvesting in your area, and obtain any necessary permits or licenses. Because of the extent of damage to natural populations, harvesting wild ginseng is restricted in almost all states and forbidden in some. Research regulations for your area, and contact your local extension service or state agriculture or commerce departments for more details on how to legally and responsibly harvest.
- Learn to identify the ginseng plant. Ginseng is a green-leafed perennial plant that changes its appearance distinctly each year of its life. In the first year, it sprouts in the spring and produces a tiny plant with three leaflets on a thin stalk about 2-5 inches high. The stalk drops off as winter approaches, and is replaced in the second year by another which usually grows to 5 or more inches high. Second year plants exhibit one or two distinct leaf prongs, each with 3-5 leaflets or "lobes". In the third year and thereafter, a prong bearing yellow-green flowers generally emerges from the stalk. These flowers produce berries which turn red when ripe. Over successive years (ginseng plants can live up to 100 years), additional leaf prongs grow periodically, each with 3-5 (usually 5, but occasionally more or fewer) leaflets, and a mature plant may have a stalk up to 20 inches tall with 4, 5, or occasionally more, prongs.
- Go where the ginseng grows. In the U.S., ginseng grows naturally in nearly every state east of or bordering the Mississippi River as well as in Oregon and Washington. Ginseng is not heat-tolerant, so in southern states it is usually found only in mountainous areas. It usually grows in well-shaded areas (especially north- or east-facing slopes) of moist hardwood forests, especially where tulip poplar, maple, beech, hickory, walnut, and, sometimes, oak trees are present. The more mature the forest (with large hardwood trees and a full canopy that shades out most shrubs, briars, etc.), the better, as a thick understory of smaller plants will overshade or outcompete ginseng. The plant is highly sought, and known populations are kept secret, so you will generally have to venture deep into the forest to have any chance of finding it.
- Look for companion plants. One indicator that you may be in an area where ginseng grows is the presence of "companion plants" plants which favor the same growing conditions as ginseng and which are sometimes found growing among ginseng. These include trillium (Trillium spp.), cohosh (Caulophyllum thalactroides -blue, Cimicifuga racemosa-black), jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema atrorubens), wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), and Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum). Of course, finding these plants in no way guarantees that you’ll also find ginseng.
- Harvest only medicinally mature plants. If harvesting wild ginseng is allowed in your state (again, check the laws first) harvest only mature plants. These are usually 7 or more years old. Even if you succeed in finding ginseng plants, you may not find mature ones. Many wild plants never have more than 3 prongs, or branches, from the main stalk. The only way to tell the age of a root is to examine the neck or "stem" of the root which carries next year's bud and from which the stalk springs up each growing season. This is done by following the stalk down in the ground until you reach the "stem". Usually a "stem" of one half inch long or longer indicates a mature plant, and will have at least 7 or more scars on it. Growing conditions are continually changing in our forests, and some plants which produce only 2 prongs in any particular year of its life may in fact be up to fifty years old, or more. Harvest of immature plants is most likely illegal in your jurisdiction.
- Dig carefully. When you find a mature plant, carefully dig it out so as not to damage the root. Use a pitchfork or needle-nose spade to dig under the plant, and leave plenty of space (about 6 inches) between the plant and where you push the pitchfork or spade into the ground. That said, be respectful of nearby plants and disturb them as little as possible. If the plant is close to immature ginseng plants, use a smaller implement such as a stout flat blade screwdriver about 8 or 10 inches long, and work with extra care. If there is any risk of damaging the roots of adjacent immature ginseng plants, do not attempt to harvest the plant.
- Wash and dry the root(s). Briefly soak the roots in a bucket of cool water to remove excess soil. Then place the roots in a single layer on a wood tray (do not touch ginseng with metal) and wash them under a sink faucet or with a hose. Do not scrub them or wash them too vigorously—some of the medicinal chemicals are concentrated in the root hairs, and removal of these hairs will decrease the usefulness and value of the root. Make sure the roots are not touching and let them dry on a wooden rack in a well-ventilated room between 70-100 degrees F.
- You can get a good approximation of a ginseng plant’s age by counting the scars near the base of the stalk. Each year the stalk falls off and leaves a new scar, so the number of scars will be equal to (or very close to) the age of the plant.
- To ensure survival of the species (and to avoid being fined or imprisoned), always follow your state’s laws regarding the harvest of wild ginseng and the growth and sale of wild-simulated ginseng. Never harvest immature plants; never harvest outside of the designated season; and don’t harvest wild ginseng at all if the law prohibits it.
- Exercise caution to prevent poaching. The best defense against poachers is secrecy. Make sure your crop is on your private property, well-hidden and unlikely to be disturbed. Don’t talk about it any more than necessary, and only deal with reputable suppliers and buyers. As plants approach maturity, be especially watchful. Should you catch poachers, try to deter them and have them apprehended by law enforcement officers.
- Be careful when confronting potential poachers, and avoid using force or violence to repel them.
Sources and Citations
- Alternative Herbal Medicine.net A cornucopia of ginseng links, including laws, conservation, and marketing
- Nearctica.com Identification of ginseng plant in the wild
- Gancao.net History of ginseng in Asian culture, medicinal uses
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