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13 Questions About Ginseng

Caring For, Finding, Growing, Digging and Selling Ginseng – These are Wild Ozark’s most often asked questions about ginseng. I’m always learning more about this fascinating plant, so if you have opposing information please post in the comments. If you have other questions, post those too!

Frequently Asked Questions About Ginseng

1. Why can’t I find ginseng?

Most often the answer turns out to be that the person was looking in the wrong kinds of places. Once the right habitat was discovered, then the problem is that the plant is just very hard to spot.

Sometimes, even if the habitat is correct, the problem is that there just isn’t any or very many ginseng plants growing there. It is often completely harvested by poachers or overharvested by previous land-owners or diggers.

At least when the right habitat is found, you can always plant some and start a new patch.

  • For a more in depth response to this question, click here.

2. Can I dig in one state and sell in another?

At least in Arkansas, not without a dealer’s license. Here’s a quote from the Arkansas State Plant Board ginseng regulations:

1. Any person, business, or corporation who buys wild or artificially propagated American Ginseng for sale across state lines shall be termed a dealer by intent of Act 774 of 1985, and shall obtain a Ginseng Dealer License and a Certificate of Legal Taking from the Arkansas State Plant Board.

3. When should you plant ginseng?

In late fall, before the ground begins to freeze. Out here (northwest Arkansas) the ground never freezes solid long, so I’d also plant during winter on days that aren’t too cold. Usually, though, I like to have all the seeds planted by end of October.

4. Where do I sell my ginseng?

Check around September on the windows of stores in the small towns of your area. Buyers will often post notices to say when they’ll be coming to town. You can also check the classifieds of your electric coop magazine (if you get those out there). Fur buyers will often buy ginseng or know of ginseng buyers in the area. I’ve seen notices posted in the classified section of our local newspaper before, too.

Wild Ozark runs a page each year for diggers and sellers to post information for each other in the comments. You might be able to find a buyer by posting a comment of your own. Here’s this year’s page: 2017 Ginseng Prices Page

5. Finding ginseng

You can find ginseng in deep forests on north, west, or east facing slopes. It helps a lot to know the companion plants that grow in the same areas ginseng grows: black cohosh, bloodroot, doll’s eyes, maidenhair fern, Christmas fern, pawpaw, wild ginger. These plants are easier to spot than the ginseng itself. If you’re trying to find a suitable site for growing your own, it’s good to plant in places these plants grow if the site has sufficient shade.

6. Ginseng seed sources, and how long does it take to ginseng to grow from seed

To buy seed, I suggest you get it from as local a source as possible. We get ours from Ozark Mountain Ginseng in Thayer, MO. We’re not in the same state, but we are both located in the Ozarks, at least. His seedstock aren’t originally from the Ozarks, either, but the plants that grow from them look just like the ones that grow wild here.

Aside from that, seeds and plants produced locally are adapted to your local conditions and will more easily thrive.

The topic of seed sourcing is one of the most debated questions about ginseng. Some believe a ginseng is a ginseng is a ginseng and that there is no difference between any of them. I believe there are distince local genotypes.

I’ve heard that Wisconsin seeds do just fine here in the Ozarks, but I am concerned about genetic pollution and try to minimize the difference between the cultivars with my introduced seeds. That’s why I try to get a genotype of ginseng that is at least similar to the wild type we have here in the Ozarks. I believe Ozark Since it’s illegal to buy/sell/collect/trade wild ginseng seeds, this is the best I can do.

How Long from Seed to Plant?

Ginseng produces a berry in summer. In the berry there are two seeds. When the berry falls to the ground it takes a full year of sitting there before it sprouts the second spring after falling. When you buy seeds they’ll be stratified (usually). This means the seed has already waited the first year (usually outside buried in a bed or bucket of sand) and will be ready to sprout the spring after you plant it.

7. Ginseng companion trees

The trees that ginseng grows best under around here is a mix of the following: oak, hickory, maple, pawpaw, dogwood, redbud, beech and poplar.

8. What happens when ginseng gets too much sunlight?

Too much sun will bleach out the leaves making them turn whitish. Eventually the plant will die in these conditions but if the problem is confined to a small area, you can put up some shade cloth until the tree canopy closes in. If this is a problem in a large area, then the ground is probably too dry there and the site is not suitable for ginseng to begin with.

9. How to tell the difference between poison oak/ivy/Virginia creeper and ginseng?

To the uninitiated, ginseng looks a lot like a few other plants. It’s most often confused with poison oak/ivy during first year growth because at that time ginseng only has 3 leaves. To tell the difference between ginseng and Virginia creeper, look at the leaves. Ginseng always has 2 tiny leaves and 3 larger ones (after the first year). All of Virginia creeper’s leaves are the same size.

Phrased a little differently, this is one of THE most often asked questions about ginseng: “Is this ginseng?”

People send me photos all the time to ask me that, and I don’t mind helping out when I can. 99% of the time, the photo is of one of the common look-alikes and not ginseng. Every once in a long while, I’ll actually get a photo of the real thing and it’s exciting to be able to confirm that for the seeker.

Check out my book about the most common look alikes. The cover is a quick-reference id key to plants often confused with ginseng.

10. When does ginseng come up in spring?

It comes up here in northwest Arkansas in mid-April. Some years it will come up later, like it did this year (2017). It was May before they unfurled because the weather in spring was cold later and very wet.

Sometimes a plant skips a year and will remain dormant until the following spring. Older plants sometimes stay dormant for more than a year or two at a time.

11. Does drought kill ginseng?

If the summers are too dry, even if it’s growing in deep shade, sometimes ginseng will die back and go dormant until the following year when conditions improve.

12. Does ginseng still grow wild?

Yes, although many diggers have carried seeds in their pockets and planted while digging, so it’s impossible to know which is true wild and which is virtually wild. This is most likely the case everywhere ginseng is native.

That leads to another of the frequent questions about ginseng: What is the difference between wild and wild-simulated? It’s only how the seed was placed. If a person put the seed on the ground (or in it), then it’s wild-simulated. If nature caused the seed to make contact with the ground, then it’s wild.

But then what about the offspring of wild-simulated that fall naturally? Well, it gets a lot trickier then, doesn’t it? I’d still call that wild-simulated, since it came from a human-seeded plant. In all other respects, though, it’s wild and will sell as a wild root (as will the other wild-simulated plants that were human-seeded).

13. Does breaking the tops off of ginseng hurt it? Will it come back next year?

Short answer: Not too much, and Maybe.

Although I’m sure having the tops broken off every year may not be good for the ginseng, if you do it late in the season after the berries have matured, it has some benefits. The main reason people do this is to “hide” the root from diggers. It would be better that the plant had the extra time with leaves to help restore energy to the root, but if poachers are an issue, it’s better for the plant than being harvested.

Sometimes deer eat the tops off of ginseng , and sometimes I harvest only the leaves. But I’ve noticed that when a plant is browsed or harvested of its leaves, it has a tendency to go dormant the following year. Then it comes back the next one. I try to not harvest leaves from the same plant two years in a row just so the plant has time to fully recuperate. But if there are many poachers in the woods any given year, I would rather top them all than lose them all.

Photo to accompany my article "Questions About Ginseng". Poster available from the Wild Ozark shop at RedBubble.
Poster and other options available from RedBubble.

Have questions about ginseng? Leave a comment and if I don’t know the answer I’ll try to find an answer.

7 thoughts on “13 Questions About Ginseng”

  1. Pingback: How to Find Ginseng

    1. If it’s too many oak leaves, they’ll make a dense mat on the forest floor. This won’t decompose quickly enough for ginseng to be able to get back up through it in spring. Hickory does the same. So it needs a mixture of other trees to keep that from happening. I have some oak, some hickory everywhere out here, but there are some areas where it’s mostly oak and hickory. Beautiful and clean underneath them and I thought at first that would be a great place to plant. Deep shade, no ground clutter… nope. Not one seedling came back through the following year. None of the seeds ever sprouted there. They do a lot better in the other areas where there are maples and other trees interspersed.

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