This post will show you how a ginseng plant looks from the first year seedling to a mature, berry-producing plant.
You’ll learn about how it changes in appearance from the seedling as it grows older. I’ll show you what “prongs” are, and explain my own theory on what it means to be a responsible ginseng steward.
What does a ginseng plant look like?
A ginseng plant looks different in its first year. In the first year it has only three leaves and looks kind of like a strawberry plant.
The appearance changes in the second year and sometimes looks more like a more like the ginseng plant you might expect.
In year two it may have two prongs (see next section for “prong” explanation), or still only one. The set of leaves might consist of five or only three or four leaflets. But it is beginning to look like a classic ginseng plant.
What the heck is a “prong”?
A “prong” is one set of leaves. This set of leaves (usually five, with three larger and two smaller) is attached to a stem branching off from the main stem. Two prongs means it has two sets of leaves, and two stems coming off the main stem.
There is always only one main stem to a ginseng plant. As the ginseng gets older, it can have two, three, or four prongs. I’ve never seen one with five prongs. You can make a rough approximation of age by how many prongs a plant has.
- None- only three leaves means it is the first year seedling.
- Two- each prong may have up to five leaves but possibly less. Means it is at least two years old.
- Three- Usually this plant will make flowers and a few fruit when it becomes three-prong. It is at least three years old but could be older.
- Four- A four-prong plant is mature. It makes flowers and usually a full set of fruit each year. It is probably older than five years and could possibly be older than twenty.
Three to Five Years
What does a ginseng plant look like when it is five years and older?
What does a ginseng plant look like in the woods?
Here’s a good photo from a little bit of distance that gives you an idea of how the plant looks in relation to other plants around it. Notice the plane of the leaves, how it’s horizontal with the ground.
I have a separate post with a picture of a ginseng root, if you want to see how that looks. This one is different looking because it has two roots and two necks, but there’s only one bud for next year’s growth. Most ginseng plants will only have one neck and root.
Be a Good Steward
Many people are interested because they just want to go out and dig ginseng because they’ve heard the price per pound is lucrative. I’m not against digging ginseng for profit but I am very concerned with poaching and unsustainable harvests. Here at Wild Ozark, we suggest:
- you learn how it looks so you can identify wild or your own wild-simulated if you planted any seeds
- you learn what it needs to thrive and stay viable so that if you have the right environment and habitat you can either sustainably harvest some of what you have (if you have enough) or
- steward the wild population until it reaches that point if not already there, or
- re-introduce ginseng to your land by planting locally-as-possible sourced seeds
If you have wild ginseng on your property, please don’t introduce seeds from another locale to that habitat. Instead, use that habitat as your learning laboratory. You can replant the seeds from those plants in that same habitat. It’s illegal to take the seeds away from there, though.
If you want to plant more ginseng than what you have already there, do some wild-simulated seed planting in a different area. Try to use seed from source plants as nearby as possible. For those in the Ozarks, I recommend ozarkmountainginseng.com. Although his seeds originally came from (I believe) West Virginia, the plants are more similar to our Ozark plants than those from Wisconsin or Tennessee and Kentucky.
If you don’t have your own land for this, or access granted by a landowner, I don’t know of any other way to “go out and dig ginseng” without crossing the line to doing something illegal or unethical.
I have a lot of blog posts here with photos of ginseng and other plants of the Ozarks.
There’s a ginseng resource page here at the website but I have fallen behind in updating it. Still lots of good links to other websites there, along with links to a bunch of my own.
Our beautiful book full of photos:
American Ginseng & Companions is a photo essay with more than 70 photos of ginseng, companion plants, and Ozark mountain ginseng habitat. You can download a PDF copy at the Wild Ozark online shop for $5 or get the paperback for $19.99 from Amazon, or e-book versions from various retailers.
The Ginseng Look-Alikes Guide will help you to tell the difference between what is ginseng, and what is not.
16 thoughts on “What does a ginseng plant look like?”
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Are the leaves thin and hairy, or smooth?
On a first year seedling, it has bristle sort of hairs that are hard to see or feel on the surface of the leaves. Older plants don’t have hair… I don’t think. I’ll have to look closer but there aren’t any easily visible. The leaves are oval shaped with pointy tips, and always the two at the bottom are definitely smaller than the others. By thin, do you mean the shape or the “substance” of the leaf itself? It’s very thin, not like a succulent leaf or anything. Thin like a blackberry leaf but more tender. And larger.
I found red ginseng on my land that the person who had my house before me planted it here.I have had this house for 25 years and people who knows about ginseng have said wow it is strong.
I’ve never heard of red ginseng before, except for the kind that is called that after steaming it, Bill. Is it an Asian variety of ginseng? Pretty interesting. I’d love to see some pictures.
Thank you! I was reading a book written in 1911 called The Harvester. It talked about ginseng so much I wanted to see what it looked like. Your article & photos are great!
Hi Melanie, I’m thrilled I was able to satisfy your curiosity 🙂 It’s a fascinating plant with an entire culture surrounding it. And not much of the culture has changed since 1911, except for the ease of communicating with others about it nowadays.
Your pictures do give great detail. Here in ky. I love going ginsenging with my dad. Its really fun.
Thanks! I hope I am encouraging people to be responsible while showing the beauty of this plant.
This is a fantastic write up on ginseng, and I found it was very helpful!
I do have a question that I am hopefully someone here may know the answer to. I know young ginseng can have 3-5 leaves on a prong, but it was my understanding that it has to have 5 leaves once it begins forming additional prongs (I could totally be wrong). I found a three prong plant, that I believe is ginseng, but it only has 3 leaves per prong. There is a large ginseng-like root attached to the bottom.. Is it possible for a ginseng plant to have multiple prongs with only 3 leaves per prong? Is there another look-alike that I am possibly mistaking this for? I know what virginia creeper is, but I don’t know of any other look-alikes in its adult stages. I am from Pennsylvania, if that helps.
Hi Spyterweb, every once in a while I’ll see a 3-prong with only 3 or 4 leaves on one prong, but not usually on all three. If you want to email me a picture of it, you can and I’ll post it on this page for us to look at. It might help others if I know it, and there might be others out there who know it if I don’t. My address is . Thanks for writing and I’m glad you found the page useful!
That would be great, Madison! I will email you it now. Thank you so much for taking the time to get back to me! 🙂
Spyterweb. Checkout Jack in the Pulpit. Is bit of a lookalike & does have a similar root. It as well has medicinal qualities in its own rite. Google it and find many pages explaining more in great length. G’Luck & Happy Foraging!
Hi Ya’ll. I encouraged Spyterweb to checkout Jack in the Pulpit. In my area it definitely can be a look a like & confuse you. Fruits red berries at the same time of year etc etc. Google it if not already aware. Be Safe G’Luck &Happy Foraging!