Time To Fiddle

Ginseng – An Eastern Forest Legacy

45 years ago I acquired 10 acres on a steep Vermont hillside which lends itself to many uses. In that time it has heated my house, cooked my meals and provided an excess of maple syrup. I had occasionally heard about a small but valuable herb and read more in the Foxfire books about Ginseng. The impression I got was that my hillside was a habitat it might like but for 20 years I could never find it.

When my son Ben got to be about nine he read the books too and asked me

“Dad, what is this Ginseng referred to in the books?” and I told him It seemed like we might have some but I could never find it. A week or so later he came and said “Come out and look at something Dad.” He had found it. Not only one but a dozen or more were there and he had marked each one with colored tape circle so I would avoid it while working in the woods.

Since the arrival of the first Europeans our  forests have undergone some major transitions. Burning and clearing denuded 80% of the landscape in parts of New England .  Selective cutting for home construction, heating and market demands changed the diversifying components of both flora and fauna. Commerce is responsible for transporting alien flora and fauna into our second and third growth habitats resulting in further departure from its previous state.

4oo years ago before these major changes, an unpretentious but abundant little herb called ginseng was already valued by Native Americans for its healing qualities. It still survives the many cycles of cutting and recovery. It still survives heavy harvesting for its commercial value though it is increasingly harder to find. Even though it can only live under a full deciduous forest canopy it still survives.


There are two prominent varieties growing in eastern North American forests. American Ginseng or Panax quinquefolius grows a root that is highly valued medicinally. The second is Panax trifolius  better known as Dwarf Ginseng. It has a much smaller root and hence less value. They are both herbaceous perennials with palmate compound leaves.

Mature 3 prong American  Ginseng

Flowering Dwarf Ginseng

American Ginseng is found in plant communities supporting Jack in the Pulpit, Ramps, Clintonia, Bane berry, Solomn’s Seal and Dutchmens Breeches. The shade of a full deciduous forest canopy under the likes of Maple, Ash, and Beech is critical. Its seeds require 2 seasons to germinate and it then grows 4 years before it matures. The first year it has a single compound leaf referred to as a prong with 3 leaflets. The second year it will have 5 leaflets.

Ginseng sprouts after 19 months

Second year seedlings have 5 leaflets

First year seedlings have 3 leaflets.

 Ginseng caged to protect from deer

At maturity it will bear fruit and have 3 to 4 prongs. Eventually ginseng reaches a foot or more in height. The prongs originate from a single point on the stem. The 3 to 5 leaflets on each prong originate from one point as well. Mature plants produce a flowering umbrel on a central stem. Insect pollination results in a cluster of green berries later ripening to red by late August. Each berry contains one to three seeds. This is a good time to spot them for field identification though they are similar to the jack in the pulpit berries.

In early July ginseng flowers open along the lower edge of the cluster first.

As the flowers farther up the cluster open seed berries rapidly develop where the earlier flowers were.

The berries drop by October to restart the cycle. They may roll down hill a short way but seldom fall far from the parent. Over decades the new plants spread slowly. But since the original parent plant can live as long as 100 years they build a local community or bed comprising many generations all living together. To the early diggers this was a gold mine and few large groups exist now. In fall the leaves turn a distinctive yellow and are again easy to spot from a distance. When the leaf detaches a scar is left and a new bud forms above it. Any plant can be aged by counting the leaf scars down to the root.

Ginseng means man-root in Chinese and it often exhibits a peculiar man shaped root. The Asian Ginseng (Panax Ginseng) has slightly different medicinal properties than the American variety. The shape of the root plays a large part in its value. Marketable roots are grown in 5 to 10 years. The active components are saponins called ginsenosides. The ginsenoside content is more of interest in the US market than the shape of the root.


The name Panax like “panacea” is from a Greek word meaning cure all. Chinese records indicate ginseng has been in use for over 5000 years for its medicinal virtues. It is used in infusions and as a food like a vegetable or as powdered or extract additives in Korea as well as China. It is best known as a medicinal cure all. Studies have corroborated some of the claimed benefits. Improved concentration and mental performance, lowered blood sugar, improved sexual performance and strengthened immune system are a few. In the Orient today only Tea is consumed more than ginseng. Though it may be preference, price and availability are also possible factors. Dating from the 1300s the Doctrine of Signatures was a belief that the lord made certain plants resemble parts of the body so man would know which ones were medicinally useful  for which problems.  For example Hepatica has liver shaped leaves and is used for blood cleansing. Lungwort looks very similar to lung tissue and  is used for treating respiratory problems. Ginseng root resembles the whole body and is recommended as a stimulant or tonic for all the bodies systems.


In China over harvesting and the elimination of forest habitats resulted the elimination of wild ginseng and in a thriving import business with Korea and Manchuria. At times hunting it was outlawed. It was so valuable only royalty could afford it. Jesuit missionaries visiting china in  1713 recorded their cultural habits, foods and medicines. Ginseng got some emphasis due to its value and rarity. These records made it back to France and England and then were referenced by other Jesuit travelers. The records made it eventually to Quebec in 1716. There a Jesuit priest showed the pictures to his Mohawk friends and they immediately recognized it. Sample plants were sent back to Europe and then to China where it was well received. At this time the fur trade was in full swing. Furs were a major export for the colonists and fur companies but it wasn’t long before ginseng came into its own. The market in China was huge. The root was very scarce and highly desired. Tons were shipped annually at high prices for the times. In colonial times it was selling for $1 to $3 per pound of dried root when bread was 2 cents a loaf. There was beginning to be enough for the common man to use it in China due to US exports. The unique medicinal properties of American Ginseng gave it additional value over Panax Ginseng.

Ginseng even financed the Americans bid for independence. When the last of the British surrendered to the US the French presented a bill for their help which was equivalent to trillions of today's dollars. On top of that the British Empire banned trade with America through many of its ports around the world . The British trade embargo also made Tea a scarce and expensive commodity though many people relied on it. This was a choke hold on the young republic. The embargo forced the US to establish its own trade routes and customers. In 1784 the ship Empress of China sailed to Canton with 30 tones of wild ginseng with the intent of returning with tea. Later shipments were on the order of 60 tons a year but this number continued to grow and along with fur exports our debt to France was paid. The Chinese market took all we could provide. At this time China started on the route to becoming the United States number one trading partner, which it is to this day, according to the US-China Business Council. John Jacob Astor made his huge fortune capitalizing on furs and ginseng. US exports in 1802 were 118 tons, in 1850 183 tons, in 1900 80 tons, in2002 264 tons and in 2007 it was up to 290 tons. Exports also go to the European market.


Other than buying it on the market there are three primary methods of getting ginseng. They are cultivation, wild simulated cultivation and wildcrafting.

By the late 1800s ginseng was getting scarce but it provided income for many families that had little else to market. The Appalachian mountain area was especially productive. Families would spend whole summers in the woods hunting ginseng and golden seal for market. They were referred to as “sangers and sealers”. About 1850 experiments in growing ginseng as an agricultural commodity were conducted. They were not very successful until some Korean farmers in an exchange program began helping. Important contributions to cultivation were also made by the researches of George Stanton in the early 1880s. As wild ginseng became depleted the cultivated ginseng effort slowly grew and so began a new supply for the insatiable eastern market. Wisconsin is now the biggest grower of cultivated ginseng. Cultivated ginseng is not as highly valued as the wild ginseng but it still brings good returns. Field cultivated ginseng is produced in many states but Wisconsin is by far the biggest producer. Cultivated roots can be grown in as little as 5 years with sufficient fertilizer and care. The large acreages covered with slated shading or fabric frames look at first like tobacco farms. Large ginseng monoculture results  in diseases that require fungicide applications. Cultivation is considerably more labor intensive and more mechanized than simulated cultivation. Ginseng feeds so heavily  the soils need time to recover before another crop can be planted. Chinese are developing large farms focused on growing field cultivated  ginseng from North American seeds which will impact the US market.

Ginseng is  the highest valued product in our Eastern forests. Encouraging it helps to improve diversity and to transition forests back to their original precolonial state.   Wild simulated ginseng is a propagation method where by the plants are grown in a natural forest environment already described. New and stratified ginseng seeds are available as well as young roots for propagation. In addition to shade, good drainage is necessary.  Ginseng does not like soggy ground.  Seeds are disbursed by hand and get little help during their growth. Sometimes fertilizer is used but not fungicides or pesticides.
They should be left on their own for 7 to 10 years. The resulting roots are recognized as superior to cultivated ginseng. In most areas the biggest threat is thieves. Attrition from deer,rodents, competition, disease, and weather will reduce the population. Deer  will nip off the tops and set the plants back.  The incipient terminal bud will usually sprout again the next season. Rodents will eat the seeds before they even emerge.

What the Chinese don’t have is the environment the US has for growing wild ginseng. Their forests were stripped long ago for agriculture and wood. North America has an edge when it comes to growing the wild ginseng because our forests have been allowed to recover.



Ginseng grows wild from Quebec to Minnesota, south to Georgia and Oklahoma and east to the coast.  Hunting for wild ginseng is still practiced in many of these states  but is becoming more and more regulated. In the Appalachians hunting Ginseng is part of the culture. Families have been supplementing or even relying on ginseng income for generations. Folktales and stories of the biggest root or the biggest patch abound.  Roots should be dug  very carefully to preserve the finer roots. After they are gently washed they're  dried for several weeks which preserves them without loss of active components. The annual leaf scars must be left on the root. New England ginseng will run about 150 plants per pound.  Buyers were offering $1000 for a  pound of dried roots in Vermont in 2014.


Fruiting ginseng in late August stands out.

Ginseng is conspicuous in October with its yellow leaves.

This is a 10 year old ginseng root. Count annual stem scars  to determine age.

Ginseng gathering and sales are controlled by the individual states that have to conform to CITIES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species ) regulations in order to monitor the health of their ginseng populations. Licenses are required to collect wild plants and regulations are in effect regarding how it must be done. In Vermont a season is instituted between August and October. Land owner permission is required. All plants must have 3 or more prongs and the seeds must be replanted in the same ground. The roots must be presented for inspection if sold. No collecting is allowed in parks or wildlife management areas. A different permit is required for dealers along with record keeping requirements. Records help track the condition of the natural populations and the source of the roots. Unfortunately there are few resources for enforcing these regulations. In the Smokey Mountains National Park ginseng poachers are having such a serious impact on the natural populations that officials are dying roots on living plants to make them unmarketable and inserting radio tracking chips into roots to track and convict poachers.

At the same time people are being arrested for possessing one undocumented root,  sanctioned coal mining concerns remove whole mountaintops of prime ginseng habitat and the plants along with it.  The enforcers turn a blind eye. In the coal mining areas of Kentucky and West Virginia  where it is an important secondary source of income  its habitat is being severely compromised.  Other human threats include land development, forest canopy removal via clear cutting or over harvesting.

In general the older collectors are not being replaced by younger generations. Differing interests and the scarcity of plants are the reasons given. Fewer  people can identify  ginseng when they see it. This reduces the risks of starting your own wild simulated patches. To find ginseng go out in August and look for the clusters of red berries and leaf structures matching the pictures or go in October and look for the yellow leaves still on their stems. Hunt the hard wood forests with plenty of shade and mature canopies. Wild ginseng is said to like land that has never been cultivated. Where you find one look for others.

For  300 years in this country ginseng has been a real contributor to our health and income. This little herb could stand your help in preserving and repopulating it's former territory.

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