Plant Profile – American ginseng
American ginseng is a slow growing perennial herb indigenous to the low, deciduous forests of the eastern United States and Canada. The plant has been overly harvested due to the strong market for its medicinal root. For this reason, harvesting is now strictly enforced in the areas where the plant still grows wild. American ginseng is also cultivated commercially.
American ginseng grows in cool, shady locations in rich, well-drained soil. Wild ginseng grows in forests rich with beech, poplar, hickory, walnut, and oak trees. The low-lying plant uses the forest canopy as protection from direct sunlight and is self-propagated through the dropping of seeds by mature plants. In the wild, American ginseng will be found in patches consisting of plants at multiple levels of maturity. Commercial growers may attempt to replicate wild growing conditions or may elect to utilize artificial shade to produce suitable growing conditions. The plant dies back in fall and remains dormant until early spring.
American ginseng has a gnarled, fleshy, tan root that can grow to lengths of up to two feet. The age of the plant can be determined by counting the wrinkles or rings on the neck at the top of the taproot. The root branches out in to several small rootlets along its sides.
The seedling starts out as a small straight stem topped by three leaves. Growers and harvesters call this a one-prong plant. As the plant matures through its development cycle of three to seven years, other leaf prongs will develop off the central stem and each will form as many as seven leaflets. After a period of three or more years, the plant will develop a center umbel with small white-green flowers in the spring. These will be replaced by green, and later, red berries in the fall. Each plant can contain as many as fifty berries with two seeds contained in each. Toward the end of the growing season, the leaves will turn from green to a brilliant yellow.
Typically, American ginseng will be harvested when the plant is between three and five years of age. At this stage, the plant will have a minimum of three and up to seven leaf prongs. Harvesters of wild ginseng are expected to collect and redistribute the seeds throughout the growing area in an effort to protect the plants future in the wild. Overharvesting, primarily in the 1970’s, had severely depleted the plants numbers in the wild because there is a high profit to be found in the sale and exportation of the root.