American ginseng is a perennial herb indigenous to the eastern half of the United States and parts of Canada. Once plentiful on the eastern seaboard, the plant was over harvested for its root in the 1970’s for medicinal uses. The plant is now known to grow wild in some deciduous forests in 18 states; Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Each state has its own guidelines and legally enforced harvest season, typically during the fall months.
American ginseng, (Panax quinquefolius), is a low growing herb that comes up in early spring and begins to die back in the fall. The plant develops through a progression of life stages until reaching a mature state, usually between four to seven years after seed propagation.
In the seedling stage, ginseng appears as a short stem adorned by three dark green leaflets. This is followed by the yearling stage when the stem height is a bit taller and the plant begins to form addition leaflets around a center point on the leaf stem. In ginseng identification, this is considered a one-prong plant. In the next stage, the ginseng plant forms another leaf with additional leaflets originating from the central stem making it a two-prong plant. At this point, the plant will begin forming green flowers in spring and red fruit in early fall.
After three or more years as a two-prong plant, the ginseng will develop a third leaf and be adorned with 15 or more leaflets. This branching out to form additional leaves is helpful in determining the age of the plant. Plants with less than three prongs should never be harvested. At maturity, the American ginseng will have four or five prongs with 20 or more leaflets.
Mature American ginseng can be spotted quite easily when the bright red berry is in bloom. This cluster of berries sits high in the center of the leaf prongs. Toward the end of the growing season, the leaves of the ginseng plant will turn an almost striking yellow color. This is the easiest time to locate the plant.
There are some plants within the ginseng growing range that can easily be mistaken for American ginseng. Wild sarsaparilla is often referred to as “fools ‘sang” because it is the most common plant mistaken for ginseng. The two plants are closely related but can be distinguished from each other by differences in the arrangement of the flowers and leaflets and the variation in berry color. Other Ginseng imposters include; Virginia creeper, Dwarf Ginseng, Black snakeroot, and Jack in the pulpit.