How to Grow and Harvest Ginseng
Ginseng is a native perennial with a fascinating history. The plant itself, which is mainly grown for its purported medicinal powers, has an unassuming appearance. To grow your own ginseng, you need at least three things: a cool, shady spot, well-drained, humus-rich soil, and even moisture. Oh, and one more thing: patience. If your garden includes an area that mimics this plant’s natural habitat in the forest, trying to grow this herb can be a worthwhile project. And if visitors ask, you can delight them with stories from ginseng’s storied past.
The plant grows 8-16 inches tall with three to five erect stems each bearing three to five serrated leaflets. From the second year after sowing, tiny whitish-green flowers appear in spring. This is followed by attractive bright red berries that ripen in late summer or early fall. It is the root (technically a rhizome) of the plant that is used medicinally, but it can take several years for a decent-sized root to develop.
The history of ginseng
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is a shade-loving perennial native to North American forests and undergrowth habitats east of the Mississippi River. It has been used for centuries by many Native Americans for its medicinal properties. A similar kind (Panax ginseng) has long been part of Chinese medicine, where it is coveted for its powers to strengthen and heal diseases of all kinds.
Early American settlers found a ready market for dried ginseng roots in China, fetching a remarkable price. And it grew wild in the eastern woods. Shortly after the Revolutionary War, the Chinese began importing American ginseng in large quantities. Many Americans, including Daniel Boone, made a good chunk of money selling the wild-harvested plant. Records from the Department of Commerce show that between 1821 and 1888 exports of dried American ginseng to China exceeded 300,000 pounds a year (and dried at that!). The money from the sales significantly supplemented the income of many rural families. This was the ultimate cash crop – all you had to do was find it.
Unfortunately, American ginseng has been threatened with overharvesting to the point of extinction in many regions. Laws were enacted to curb poaching on public lands. Today, wild collecting is still allowed (for a fee), with guidelines that vary from state to state. Farm ginseng, while not as prized as wild ginseng, is a crop that still fetches a pretty penny for those who grow it.
Where to plant ginseng
“Creating a garden environment for ginseng allows one to explore its natural habitat and adapt those conditions and companion plants for its addition to the forest garden,” says Margaret Bloomquist, research associate with North Carolina State University’s Alternative Crops and Organics Program. She suggests.
Ginseng prefers a high shade canopy of mixed hardwood trees, a slight inclination to drainage, and rich, slightly acidic soil with lots of organic matter. If native ferns and wildflowers like bloodroot, wild ginger, trillium, and foamflower are thriving in your shady garden, conditions are likely good for ginseng.
How to plant ginseng
To prepare your site, remove low branches from trees to encourage air movement and make sure your soil contains plenty of organic matter. Well-composted leaf litter is an excellent addition.
Ginseng can be grown from seeds or seedlings. “Buy good-quality seeds that have been stratified (have gone through a cold spell) for the fastest germination,” says Bloomquist. “Seeds should not dry out completely.”
There’s an advantage to starting with ginseng seedlings rather than seeds, which “are widely available these days and can be planted in spring or fall,” says Bloomquist. One- or two-year-old seedlings “speed up time to maturity when the root is large enough to be harvested, which is at least five years old,” says Bloomquist. Growing plants from seed adds a few more years.
Leave about two feet of space between ginseng plants (or neighboring plants) to allow for good air circulation, as ginseng is susceptible to disease when overcrowded. Keep plants moist, well-mulched, weeded and regularly inspected for pest and disease damage. You may need to protect plants from deer browsing. If snails are a problem, they can be deterred with sawdust mulch. The best defense against fungal disease is good air circulation, but if disease becomes a problem, you may need to treat your plants with an organic fungicide.
Can you grow ginseng in a container?
“Ginseng can be grown in a container, especially in the early years and as seedlings,” explains Bloomquist. Choose a container with a drainage hole. Use a loamy soil mix and plant your seeds about an inch and a half deep. Place the container in a shady spot, keep it watered, and leave outside in winter. Bloomquist suggests that you “bury [the container] a few inches into the ground and mulch to mimic a wild plant going through a cold period mulched with fall foliage debris.
Seedlings can be transplanted to the woodland garden at a fairly young age, where they can mature. “Ginseng doesn’t like being transplanted after it’s older than about two years,” says Bloomquist.
Ginseng is not a good choice for indoor growing. “It prefers a well-drained forest floor, good air circulation, and must go through the cycles of the seasons, including cold dormant periods when the plant’s leaves and stems die back to the ground in fall, only to re-emerge in spring,” explains Bloomquist.
Ginseng grows slowly, even in the best of conditions. “Ginseng plants can grow and age for decades by counting the neck scars left on the root tip by the stems of each growing season. Plants older than 30 years are common in our region’s forests,” says Bloomquist.
It will probably take 5-10 years before you can harvest a decent root. The roots should be dug up in the fall when the leaves begin to die. Gently wash your harvested roots, then place them on a screen to dry in a well-ventilated place out of direct sunlight. Turn them occasionally so they dry evenly. It usually takes two to four weeks to dry, although large roots may take longer. Store your roots in a ventilated box or basket.
Stratified seeds can be purchased from a number of seed companies such as Territorial Seed Company or Johnny’s Selected Seeds for spring or fall sowing. Seedlings may be available locally from specialist growers.