The root of the slow-growing ginseng plant has been used in Korean and Chinese herbal medicine for thousands of years, and today the therapeutic qualities of ginseng are prized the world over. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is an understory plant found in the eastern deciduous forest of the United States and in southern Québec and Ontario in Canada.1 The plant and root were used by various Native North American tribes.2 American ginseng has been harvested and exported to Asia for over 300 years, ever since a Jesuit priest named Joseph Francis Lafitau found ginseng plants growing near Montreal, Canada in 1716. Today, wild ginseng roots are still exported to Asia, where the best quality roots can sell for hundreds of dollars per pound.

Learn the laws regulating ginseng production and harvesting in your country. Obtain any necessary permits or licenses. Ginseng has declined considerably since European settlement in North America primarily due to over-harvest of wild roots and loss of habitat.

  • Because of the threat of over-harvest of natural populations, American ginseng is listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which is an international treaty designed to control and regulate international trade in listed species. To export ginseng roots in the US, please refer to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service web site to learn how to export ginseng roots.
  • In Canada, it is illegal to harvest wild ginseng, and it is classified as endangered both nationally and in Ontario and Québec. The export of wild roots in Canada is prohibited.
  • Before setting out to harvest wild ginseng, you should learn the regulations in your state and contact your state natural resource or agriculture department for more details on how to legally and responsibly harvest ginseng. The harvest of wild ginseng is regulated in 19 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin), and is restricted or prohibited in all other states where it occurs. All of the 19 states have a designated harvest season, which is from September 1 to November 30, and require diggers to harvest plants with red berries and to plant the seeds in the vicinity of the harvested plants.
  • Eighteen states require wild ginseng plants to have 3 prongs (3 leaves with 3-5 leaflets each) and plants must be at least 5-years of age. In Illinois, plants must be 10-years of age and have 4 prongs (4 leaves with 3-5 leaflets each).
  • Also, some states require harvesters to have a state-issued harvest permit, as well as written permission by the land-owner to harvest wild ginseng. Most states prohibit harvest on state lands. The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) has compiled all the ginseng laws and regulations for the 19 states at its web site. A one-page brochure for each of the 19 states, titled “Good Stewardship Harvesting of Wild American Ginseng,” can be downloaded for free, which includes information on how to legally and responsibly dig wild ginseng and the relevant state laws and regulations.
  • Some U.S. Forest Service National Forests issue harvest permits for wild ginseng while other National Forests prohibit the harvest of ginseng. Check with the National Forest in your area to know whether ginseng harvest is allowed. The harvest of wild ginseng on U.S. National Parks is strictly prohibited.
    1. Learn to identify the ginseng plant. Ginseng is a perennial herb that emerges early in the spring with a single stem that terminates with a whorl of 1-4 palmately compound leaves, each leaf is comprised of 3 to 5 leaflets. The leaves die in the fall as temperatures and light decrease. After germination, a tiny plant emerges from the seed and produces a single thin stem 2–5 inches (5.1–12.7 cm) high with one leave comprised of three leaflets.
      • In the second year, a new stem is produced which usually grows to 5 or more inches (12.7 centimeters) (high, and plants generally have two distinct leaves or prongs, each leaf with 3-5 leaflets. In the third year, plants can produce a single umbel with 6–20 small yellow-greenish flowers and plants generally have 2-3 leaves or prongs. Wild plants can take many years to flower and set fruit. The flowers produce berries which turn from green to red when ripe in the fall.
      • Over successive years (ginseng plants can live 30 to 50 years), additional leaves or prongs grow, each with 3-5 (usually 5, but occasionally more or fewer) leaflets and a mature plant may have a stem up to 20 inches (50.8 cm) tall with 3-4 rarely 5 or more prongs. As plants mature, they can vary the number of leaves produced, such as 3 prongs one year and 2 prongs the following year.
      Hunt for Wild Ginseng Step 3.jpg
    2. Go where the ginseng grows. Ginseng is native to eastern hardwood forests of North America, from southern Canada (Ontario and Quebec), west to South Dakota and Oklahoma, and south to Georgia. 1 Ginseng is also commercially grown outside its natural distribution in Oregon and Washington. Only 19 states allow the harvest of wild ginseng in the United States.
      • Ginseng is not heat-tolerant, so in southeastern states it is usually found only in mountainous areas. It usually grows in well-shaded areas (especially north- or east-facing slopes) of moist hardwood forests, especially where tulip poplar, maple, beech, hickory, walnut, and, sometimes, oak trees, particularly in the Appalachia and Ozark regions. The more mature the forest (with large hardwood trees and a full canopy that shades out most shrubs, briars, etc.), the better for ginseng, as a thick understory of smaller plants will overshade or outcompete ginseng plants.
      • The plant is highly sought, and known populations are kept secret, so you will generally have to venture deep into the forest to have any chance of finding it.
      Hunt for Wild Ginseng Step 4.jpg
    3. Look for companion plants. One indicator that you may be in an area where ginseng grows is the presence of "companion plants" plants which favor the same habitat conditions as ginseng and which are sometimes found growing among ginseng.
      • These include trillium (Trillium spp.), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides -blue, Actaea racemosa-black), jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum ), wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), and Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum). Of course finding these plants by no way guarantees that you’ll also find ginseng.Hunt for Wild Ginseng Step 5.jpg
    4. Harvest only mature plants with red berries. If harvesting wild ginseng is allowed in your state (again, only 19 states allow harvest) harvest only mature plants with 3 or more prongs (leaves). If there are many mature plants in the patch, leave a few plants so that they can continue to reproduce, as well as any immature plants. You can protect these plants from other harvesters who might be tempted to dig the roots by removing the leaves of the plants.
      • Leave all plants with green berries so that they can ripen. Mature plants are usually 5-7 years old or older. Even if you succeed in finding 3 prong ginseng plants, they may be not be 5 years of age. Many wild plants never have more than 3 prongs.
      • The only way to tell the age of a root is to examine the neck (technically called a “rhizome”) which is between the upright stem and the root of the plant. The neck or “rhizome” has stem scars from previous years’ growth and next year's bud. To age the root, follow the stem down in the ground until you reach the “rhizome.” Usually a root neck one inch long or longer indicates a mature plant, and will have at least 5-7 or more stem scars on it. If possible, count the number of stem scars on the root neck. A 5 year old plant will have 4 stem scars on the rhizome. If there are fewer than 4 stem scars, carefully cover the neck and root with soil to so that it continues to grow.
      • Growing conditions are continually changing in our forests, and some plants which produce only 2 prongs in any particular year of its life may in fact be up to fifty years old or more. Harvest of plants with fewer than 3 prongs is illegal in the 19 states that allow the harvest of wild ginseng. In Canada any harvesting of wild ginseng is illegal.
      • Be sure to harvest your roots sustainably.
    5. Hunt for Wild Ginseng Step 6.jpg
      Dig carefully. When you find a mature plant with 3 prongs (or 4 prongs in Illinois), carefully dig the root out so as not to damage it and the neck. Use a pitchfork or needle-nose spade to dig under the plant, and leave plenty of space (about 6 inches/15 cm) between the plant and where you push the pitchfork or spade into the ground.
      • That said be respectful of nearby plants and try not to disturb them. If the plant is close to immature ginseng plants, use a smaller tool such as a stout flat blade screwdriver about 8 or 10 inches (20.3 or 25.4 cm) long, and work with extra care. If there is any risk of damaging the roots of adjacent immature ginseng plants, do not attempt to harvest the plant.
      • After you have dug the root out, squeeze the red fruits into the palm of your hand and plant the seeds about 1 inch (2.5 cm) in the soil near the harvested plant. Never remove ginseng seeds or immature plants from the woods.
    6. Wash and dry the root(s). When you get back home, briefly soak the roots in a bucket of cool water to remove excess soil. Do not wash them under a sink faucet or with a hose. Do not scrub them or wash them vigorously as some soil is desirable by the buyer and the surface of the root can easily be damaged. Then place the roots in a single layer on a screen tray to dry. Make sure the roots are not touching and let them dry on a wooden rack in a well-ventilated room between 70–100 °F (21–38 °C).

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