This article is an adapted excerpt from my book Sustainable Ginseng, available in paperback or e-book from our online store or Amazon. If you buy the paperback from Amazon you can get the e-book free. It’s about how to grow ginseng in a way that ensures the plant’s survival for the future. HOWEVER. This book is old and full of links to websites that might not be around anymore. I’d write it differently now if I had the time to do it again, and leave the links out of the print version. They should be clickable in the e-book version, but I’m not sure they’ll still lead to websites that exist today.
How to grow ginseng in the wild-simulated, sustainable way
American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is a perennial plant native to Southeastern United States, including the Ozarks. Every year in fall, hunters gather the roots in hopes of turning a day’s labor into tidy profits. Actually, it usually takes more than a day to gather enough roots to make a pound of dried roots to sell. The labor is hard but takes the digger through some of the most beautiful (albeit tick infested) places in our Ozarks. It takes about a bread bag full of fresh, about 300 roots to make about a pound dried. When ginseng was more plentiful in the woods, this might not have taken so long. Nowadays, plants are scattered far and between and it takes a bit of walking to gather even half a bag. That’s why many choose to grow American ginseng on their own property in such a way that the roots are indistinguishable from true wild. It’s called “Virtually Wild” or “Wild-Simulated” ginseng.
Why is endangerment happening?
The plant grows very slowly. They’re not legal to dig until they’re at least five years old and some states even require ten years for wild ginseng. People dig them faster than they are reproducing and maturing. Deer browse the leaves, wild hogs root the whole plant up, and turkey eats the berries (which destroys the seed). Logging activities destroy the growing areas and most people just don’t notice when a plant goes extinct or becomes endangered. And sadly, most people don’t care about plants the way they do about cute, furry animals. China imports most of our wild ginseng roots and because of the endangered status, it’s on a special list called CITES which regulates trade of endangered species. Scientists do studies to determine whether the trade is worsening or impacting the security of the plant and decides when the stress becomes too great. If you plant one of the berries (each berry contains two seeds), those seeds won’t sprout the following spring, but the spring after that.
If you buy seeds that have already been stratified (left to winter over in a bucket or bed of sand so the berry rots away to leave only the seed), those sprout the following spring. I buy my stratified seed from the most local provider I can find, Ozark Mountain Ginseng, out of Thayer Missouri. I’ve always had good results with their seed. Dennis Lindberg is the owner of the company and he’s very easy and willing to talk with you if you call when they’re not out working the farm. Although he and I disagree on whether tilling is detrimental,(see the paragraphs near the end of this article about amending with gypsum for my reasons against tilling) he offers through his website a great resource of seeds and growing information. When you buy seeds like this, you’ll need to keep them refrigerated with a damp paper towel inside the bag for moisture. If you hold them long enough this way, they’ll even start to prepare for sprouting inside the bag. Once the tiny “tail” develops on the seed, you have to be very careful not to break that off or the seed won’t grow.
Where to Grow American Ginseng?
Ginseng only grows naturally where the shade is dense (the tall shade of old deciduous trees is perfect) and the loamy soil is moist, but well-drained. The best soil also has a low pH and a high calcium level. Ordinarily, when calcium is high pH is high also, so the trick is in finding the inverted ratio. Soil pH is low everywhere on our property but varies according to the conditions and terrain. In my favorite spots, the inverted ratio of high Ca-low pH is present. You can artificially raise the calcium without compromising the pH or “wild-simulated” status by adding gypsum to your planting bed. Unless you till, the change only affects the surface until rain and nature bring it to lower levels. If you till you run the risk of your roots appearing cultivated rather than wild. Some experts dispute this, saying that in the following years if no further tilling is done, the roots will be wild in appearance. I have another reason to discourage the practice though. Tilling destroys the mycelial life of the leaf litter and upper layers of soil. Nature tills with things like earthworms, armadillos and wild hogs, but while earthworms are beneficial the other two are destructive. In a balanced ecosystem, there won’t be the extent of tilling even from the armadillos and hogs that you’d get from machinery turning over the soil.
The picture above is a wintertime photo. That’s a good time of year to have a look around. The other good time of year is mid-summer (see below). The winter photo makes it easy to see the lay of the land, but summer inspection will show you the shade, sun angles and density of the underbrush. In summer it’s also easier to identify the mix of trees present because there are leaves to help with identification. Those who know their trees can identify them even in winter, though. In this location, the trees are fairly mature but the stand is not very deep and so the temperatures under this shade in summer will be warmer than it would be if the forest were a large one *and* mature. The tops of these trees still allow a little more sun to reach the ground. While I am able to grow ginseng in this spot, it’s not the best location. There’s still too much sunlight on the ground. If we can avoid any ice storms perhaps this spot will eventually become better as the trees fill in the canopy.
In summer you can also notice whether any of the companion plants are present. The picture above shows a patch of black cohosh in bloom. Also notice the bright patch of sunlight on the other side of it. Cohosh and many of the other companions will not be bothered by this much sun, but ginseng will be burned in that bright light. Here’s another article of mine on ginseng’s companion plants (link is broken, will repair soon). According to all of the resources I’ve read, the very best places are on the north and northeastern sides of the hills and mountains, on the lower parts of the slope. The picture above is on a western slope near the top of a mountain. It does grow there, but I lose more to bright sun and heat than I would if it were shadier, as it is farther downward on the slope. It grows just fine for me on western hillsides, but I’ve had no luck on the southern exposures. It’s just too hot and dry there. I also have experimented by planting it in cedar thickets and it’s performing well enough there, but the plants remain much smaller than those in more desirable locations. If want to try to grow American ginseng even though your location isn’t ideal, keep in mind the minimum requirements and do what you can to meet them. For example, if your shade isn’t deep enough, you could hang shade cloth until the canopy matures. The shade cloth will also help keep the temperature cooler.
How and When to Plant?
The time to plant is in early winter when green things are no longer growing, but before the ground freezes. You can still plant in winter after freezing begins, but rocks won’t lift off the surface easily when it’s frozen. Just pick a day to do it while the ground is thawed. I bring a couple certain tools with me to the woods when I’m going out planting.
I use the rake to pull leaves away only from the spot I’m planting and the pick for moving rocks or roots out of the spot.
The row flows downhill. This is important. If you plant with the curve of the hill, horizontally, as common sense might tell you to plant, it creates a dam effect to the air flowing downhill. When airflow is dammed in this way it gives a better environment for mold and mildew to grow. Ginseng is susceptible to certain molds and mildews and it can sometimes wipe out an entire colony. This row is only about 10 feet long, constrained by the tree in front. I didn’t make it longer because on that day I knew I wouldn’t have time to plant more. I only like to uncover the ground where I’ll plant, and no more. In the next photo you can see a close-up of the soil structure and the mycelial life in the layer of leaf litter.
Paul Stametes is a world-renowned expert on mycology. If you are interested in learning more about why the mycelial life of our planet is so important, please listen to his YouTube video about Six Ways Mushrooms can Save the World. In the row pictured above, if I were planting it as a permanent installation, I would plant one seed starting at the top corner and zig-zag downward to the bottom corner. Each seed would be planted about an inch deep by making an impression with my thumb and dropping in the seed. This is literally down-to-earth work. There are planting tools for sale in various places online, and I’ve tried one, but I still prefer to do the actual planting with my hands. If I were making a transplant bed I would scatter the seeds on the surface then tamp them down and cover the row back up with the leaves I’d raked away. Either way the leaves go back over the bed. But for a transplant bed in spring I’d come back to dig the rootlets back up and either move them to other places or sell them to others who want to start with rootlets rather than seeds.
According to researchers from University of Missouri at Columbia, an ideal colony size is 100 plants of mixed ages (this data is from an old study I can no longer find online. The newer study I found suggests even more plants per colony). This takes into account the browsing of deer and (I think) turkey eating some of the seeds. The row I pictured above is only 1/10 of the eventual installation. When the colony is mature (about ten years) there will be older plants producing seed to keep the colony growing. A grower can take 25% of that colony without negative impact on the sustainability of the colony. I know taking only 25 plants from the 100 doesn’t sound like much when it will take around 300 roots to make the dry pound. According to the earlier mentioned study, if seeds are replanted then the colony can survive a greater percentage of harvest. Always replant the seeds from the plants you dig up. And replant them near where you dug the mother plant. It takes more property and more planting and more time to make a lot of money selling ginseng roots if you intend to do it in a sustainable way. That’s why I stated up front that my goal with this method is conservation, not profit. But I hope enough people are interested in keeping this legendary and useful plant alive and sustainable in our forests to go the extra mile it takes to cultivate the larger colonies before they begin the harvests.
This page is an excerpt from “Sustainable Ginseng”, a book I’ve written to share information about growing wild-simulated, or virtually-wild, ginseng.