USDA Forest Service • USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
American Ginseng Production in Woodlots
For the past 3,000 years or more the roots of a perennial plant called ginseng havebeen an important component of traditional Chinese medicine. The roots of wildAmerican ginseng have been harvested, dried, and exported from the United Statesand Canada to China, since the mid 1700’s. Today, American ginseng is also a veryimportant part of traditional Chinese medicine. It is used as an “adaptogen” thatallows the body to adjust to various types of stress. It is not used as a specific cure orremedy for any particular ailment but as a component of many medicinal herbal com-binations that help people deal with the aging process and related disorders.
Presently there are dozens of over-the-counter herbal remedies, available in local drugstores, which contain ginseng or ginseng extracts. Ginseng has become one of themost popular herbs of the 1990’s as Americans and Europeans seek alternatives toprescription drugs. Unfortunately many of the ginseng products available in localstores do not contain any American ginseng. Usually they contain extracts of eitherAsian ginseng, which is widely cultivated in China and Korea, or so-called “Siberianginseng” which is a related plant, but not a true species of ginseng. According to theU.S. Department of Commerce, as long ago as 1858 the U.S. exported more then350,000 pounds of dried wild ginseng roots. American ginseng has been cultivated inthe U.S. since the late 1800’s, primarily in the northeast, southeast and the midwest.
American ginseng, (Panax quinque-
- is a native American herb with a
range that extends from Southern Quebec
to Northern Georgia and from the East
Coast to the Midwest (Figure 1). It grows
as an understory plant in the dense shade
provided by deciduous hardwood tree
species. In the Northeast it is most often
found growing under sugar maple while in
the Southeast it is often found under tulip
poplar or black walnut. In the Midwest it
occurs beneath several different hardwood
Figure 1 - Shaded area denotes ginseng’s
present wild range in the United States.
Field cultivated ginseng
- is grown in raised beds in fields under artificial shade
provided by either wood lathe or polypropylene shade cloth for a period of three to
four years. In 1998 there were approximately 8,000 acres of “field cultivated” ginseng
in production in North America.
Woods cultivated ginseng
- is grown in a forested environment in tilled beds under
natural shade for a period of six to nine years.
Wild simulated ginseng
- is grown in untilled soil in forests for a period of nine to
twelve years or even longer. The dried roots of wild simulated ginseng closely approxi-
mate the appearance of truly wild ginseng.
– is an internationally protected species. Its collection is either prohibited
or strictly regulated in states where it occurs.
In recent years the world market price for field cultivated ginseng has dropped to near theactual cost of production. The prices of woods cultivated and wild simulated ginseng, onthe other hand, have risen to levels that can be extremely profitable for landowners withsuitable forest stands.
- Wild ginseng is an internationally protected plant. In order for it to be legally
exported from any state it must be certified as being cultivated ginseng or, if wild plants
are gathered, they must be harvested according to the rules and regulations of a state cer-
tification program, approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Currently, only 20
states have such a program (Table
1). Prospective growers should con-
Table 1: States with a ginseng certification program
Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa,
Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri,
New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania,
Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia,
- Although woods cultivated ginseng is not often affected by many pest problems,
occasionally they do occur. Very few pesticides are registered for use on ginseng in the
United States. Introduced exotic or sometimes native slugs can be a major problem in
woodland ginseng operations. Prospective growing areas can be surveyed for slugs by
using baits made from grapefruit rinds.
- American ginseng is native only to the states shown on the map (Figure 1). It
may or may not be feasible to cultivate it in forested areas of states other then those pic-
tured. It absolutely requires a cold period during the dormant season equivalent to at least
1,000 hours at temperatures below 50 degrees F, therefore ginseng cannot be grown in the
extreme southern U.S. Other obscure, but very important, microclimatic forest conditions
also influence the growth of ginseng, even within it’s native range.
Ginseng seed has a complex dormancy requirement and is highly perishable if not prop-erly handled from the time of harvest until it is planted. Typically the seed is extractedfrom the red, ripe berries in August or September by mashing the berries and floating thepulp off. The seeds are then mixed with moist, clean, coarse sand at a ratio of two partssand to one part seed. The seed/sand mixture is put in a box with screen on top and bot-tom and buried underground for approximately one year. The box is dug up one year laterand the seed is planted in the late summer or early fall. The seeds sprout the followingspring, usually in mid April. Ginseng seed that has been stored for one year under out-door conditions is referred to as “stratified seed.”
Perhaps the most crucial aspect of forest ginseng cultivation is choosing a proper site.
Ginseng thrives in cool, moist, densely shaded woodlands that have well drained soil.
Wild ginseng is typically found in calcium rich forest soils well supplied with organicmatter. It is often found beneath mature deciduous trees and will not grow in an exclu-
sively coniferous forest. In the South, Southeast, parts of the Northeast and Midwest,slopes that are north or northeast and of five to 20 percent grade seem to provide opti-mal orientation and facilitate both air and water drainage. In the far north, for exampleVermont and Maine as well as Quebec, south or southwest facing slopes are preferred.
The ideal ginseng-growing site is one that has a thriving population of wild ginseng orresembles such a site in terms of tree species and ground plants. Prospective growerswould be wise to investigate the ecology of wild ginseng in their region (see refer-ences) before beginning. Ginseng is often found growing among other woodland plantsthat indicate rich, moist soil, high in calcium. Local foresters, soil scientists, and otherresource conservationists often can be called on to identify rich, fertile soils within anygiven region.
“Woods cultivated” ginseng site preparation begins with a general clearing of understo-ry vegetation, small trees and as many rocks as possible. The next step is to till the soilto a depth of four to six inches either with a rototiller or by hand. Occasionally soilamendments are tilled into the soil if necessary (see maintenance section).
No fertilizer or lime is applied to potential ginseng beds unless the soil pH is below4.5. If pH is 4.5 or less, 50 pounds of ground limestone per 1,000 square feet may betilled in before planting. A one to two inch layer of well-rotted or shredded hardwoodleaves from the forest floor may also be tilled in. Stratified seed are planted at the rateof 40 to 50 pounds per acre (one to one and a half pounds per one thousand square feet)in late summer or fall, but before the ground begins to freeze. There are approximatelyseven thousand seeds per pound. Seeds are randomly broadcast by hand or tediouslyplanted one inch apart in rows spaced six to nine inches apart. Many growers makefour to six foot wide beds to facilitate weeding. The seed is covered with a one half toone inch layer of soil, trampled on and mulched with two to three inches of eithershredded or intact leaves from the surrounding trees.
Occasionally, one, two, or three-year-old rootlets are planted at a depth of one inch totwo inches. These are spaced at one rootlet per square foot of bed. Rootlets for trans-planting cost significantly more then stratified seed but save years of time in the pro-duction cycle. In New York state in 1998 one year old rootlets cost approximately 25cents each. Two-year-old rootlets cost 50 cents and three-year-old rootlets cost $1.00.
“Wild simulated” ginseng planting involves similar site preparation without tilling thesoil. In most cases the ground cover of decaying leaves and humus is simply rakedaway and seeds are pushed into the soil, trampled on and the leaf mulch is then rakedback.
Annual maintenance of “woods cultivated” ginseng beds consists of hand weeding,removal or suppression of competing shrubbery, spraying of appropriate fungicides ifneeded, controlling slugs if necessary, and fall thinning of crowded stands to achieve afinal population density of one plant per square foot. Weeding is most crucial duringthe first two growing seasons.
Occasionally calcium is applied in the form of gypsum at the rate of four pounds per100 square feet, broadcast on top of the beds in early spring, prior to crop emergence, ifsoil tests indicate less then 1,000 pounds of calcium available per acre. Established gin-seng beds should be tested for calcium levels every two to three years. Except for calci-um, no fertilizer should be added to woods grown ginseng at any time. “Wild simulatedginseng” is usually left to grow on it’s own after one or two seasons of weed controlexcept for annual slug control if needed.
Ginseng roots growing in woodland sites are usually large enough to harvest after six ormore seasons of growth. Harvest usually takes place in late summer or early fall. Thefreshly dug roots should weigh an average of at least one-quarter of an ounce each by thattime. There is often great variability in the size and shape of the roots, even those grow-ing next to each other. A “rule of thumb” is that from 100 to 300 dried ginseng roots areneeded to produce a pound (dried ginseng loses 2/3 of its fresh weight). Ginseng roots areusually dug by hand, carefully, so as not to damage the root or the fibers that grow fromthe main taproot.
Freshly dug roots are washed with a strong stream of water from a hose, but never
scrubbed. The roots are dried slowly in a well-ventilated attic or a commercial dryer thatnever gets warmer than 100 degrees F. They are carefully placed individually withouttouching each other on screens or in cardboard trays before drying. The drying processmay take several weeks depending upon the prevailing weather conditions. Growersshould talk to prospective buyers before attempting to dry the roots because some buyersprefer to buy the roots fresh. Freshly harvested and washed ginseng roots will keep formonths in a refrigerator if stored in an open plastic bag. Fresh roots are preferred formaking certain types of products.
Ginseng growing in a forested environment is certainly not a “get rich quick” scheme as
it takes a minimum of five to eight years of growth before harvesting can occur.
Prospective growers are encouraged to start with a very small investment, perhaps a fewounces of seed plus a hundred rootlets. Expand only if preliminary results are positive.
Unlike many “alternative” agricultural commodities the market for ginseng is well estab-lished and easily accessed. See AF Note Forest Farming-4 for more information on mar-keting and the economics of ginseng. All of the references listed at the end of this factsheet include sources of seed, rootlets for transplanting, ginseng buyers and consultants.
“American Ginseng Production in New York State.” Beyfuss, R.L. Cornell Cooperative
Extension of Greene County, HCR 3, Box 906, Cairo NY 12413
“The Practical Guide to Growing Ginseng.” Beyfuss, R.L. RR 1, Box 126 N, Freehold
“American Ginseng, Green Gold.” Persons, W.S. Tuckasegee Valley Ginseng, Box 236,
“The Challenges of the 21st Century, Proceedings of the International Conference-
Vancouver 1994.” Bailey, W.G., Whitehead, C., Proctor, J.T,A., and Kyle, J.T. “Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada
Robert L. Beyfuss, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Greene County, HCR 3, Box 906, Cairo NY 12413.
For more information contact the USDA National Agroforestry Center (NAC), East Campus-UNL, Lincoln, Nebraska 68583-0822. Phone: 402-437-5178; fax: 402-437-5712.
The National Agroforestry Center is a partnership of the USDA Forest Service, Research & Development (Rocky Mountain Research Station)and State & Private Forestry and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Center’s purpose is to accelerate the developmentand application of agroforestry technologies to attain more economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable land-use systems. Toaccomplish its mission, the Center interacts with a national network of cooperators to conduct research, develop technologies and tools,establish demonstrations, and provide useful information to natural resource professionals.
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