When cultivating ginseng, it can be easy to identify the plant when it is mature, but many of the plant’s look-alikes are difficult to distinguish from an immature ginseng plant.
In this guide from HerbSpeak, you will learn how to identify the different ginseng lookalikes in the native habitat of your crop, allowing you to avoid painful rashes and crop loss when pulling unwanted plants from your wild simulated patch.
How to Identify Ginseng
Ginseng is one of the most commonly sought-after plants in Appalachia, though their native range can extend into the Ozarks. This plant can be difficult to find unless you know what you are looking for, however, so hikers and aspiring ‘seng hunters must learn how to identify ginseng before getting their permits from the state.
American ginseng is listed on the CITES appendix, which is an international list that governs the trade of endangered flora and fauna species. (1) The list is enforced to help regulate the trade of these plant species in a way that does not threaten their survival. Of all the endangered plant species on this list, ginseng is one of the most commonly exported.
“Ginseng root is exported in larger volumes than any other native CITES plant species.”
Conservation efforts do not stop with the CITES list, however. Many states have regulated the harvest of wild ginseng and provided good stewardship regulations on how ‘seng hunters should harvest the plant, and how they should replant the seeds.
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Ginseng Look-alikes: What Plant Looks Like Ginseng?
In its natural habitat, there are quite a few ginseng look-alikes that can be mistaken for ginseng, particularly as new ginseng sprouts begin to grow. Many of these look-alikes also grow near ginseng’s companion plants, making it even more difficult to determine which plant is which.
In the early years, ginseng does not sport the five palmate leaves that many people are used to seeing. Ginseng typically has three leaves for the first few years of growth before it develops the two bottom leaves on the stalk, giving it a palmate appearance. This is a prime time when the plant is mistaken for several others, which can endanger the overall survival of the species. (2)
“According to the State of the World’s Plants report published in 2016, almost 20 percent of all known plant species are threatened with extinction.”
This case of mistaken identity can be difficult for the conservation of wild ginseng, as these plants might be clear cut or pulled by mistake. These common ginseng lookalikes are also found in the same habitats where wild ginseng is found, making it difficult for people to tell the difference.
To the inexperienced ginseng gardener attempting a wild-simulated cultivation method, it can pose quite a problem when cultivated ginseng is spread out across the forest floor among its lookalikes, as ginseng may struggle if it has to compete with other plants for root space, airflow, or proper sunlight.
It is important to familiarize yourself with these ginseng lookalikes as much as possible so that you can correctly identify your ginseng along the forest floor, even if your markers have washed away over the year.
Virginia Creeper – Parthenocissus quinquefolia
These are particularly pesky lookalikes in the spring or fall when there are no flowers or berries present on your ginseng, or if your ginseng crop is too young to produce berries and flowers. Virginia creeper is particularly difficult to tell apart from your new ginseng crop when the vine is running along the ground, buried by leaves and other forest detritus.
The leaves on this vine are strikingly similar to the description of ginseng leaves with the five palmate leaflets, however, if you pull at the base of the Virginia creeper’s stem, you will notice that it comes up as a vine, rather than a plant rooted in the ground by a taproot. This is an excellent tell by itself, but being able to tell the differences by sight, without risking damage to ginseng crops, is always preferred:
By looking at a Virginia creeper up-close, you might notice that there are five palmately compound leaflets, much like ginseng once it has matured, but the serrations on the leaves are wider and only encompass 3/4th of the leaf, rather than the whole leaf.
Looking at the ginseng on the left, you will notice that the larger leaves have longer petioles, and there is a finer tooth serration to each leaflet than on the Virginia creeper. You may also notice that ginseng’s two small leaves are much smaller than those on the vine.
If you are attempting to compare ginseng which has produced berries, it is unmistakable as the ginseng berries are bright red, typically centered in the plant in an umbel formation. In late fall, ginseng leaves may turn a pale yellow, while Virginia creeper’s leaves will typically turn bright red.
Buckeye – Aesculus glabra
Believe it or not, Ohio Buckeye is commonly mistaken for ginseng when both of these plants are young seedlings. Buckeye’s leaf serrations and prominent veins are responsible for this case of mistaken identity, especially as they grow into their leaves from the seedling stage.
Buckeye is a type of tree, so once they get past this initial “baby” stage, you will not have to worry about mistaking them for ginseng, though it can still confuse when the tree sprouts new leaflets.
You will notice right away that Buckeye’s stem is woody and rigid. Ginseng does not have a woody stem; a key difference in telling the two apart. Buckeye tends to have a glossy appearance and the leaf venation looks sharper, or more ribbed than ginseng’s leaves.
The top portion of buckeye is rather durable. If you are certain the plant is buckeye, but want to give it a pull-test, you can tug on the plant. Buckeye’s leaves would be stripped from the plant, leaving the woody stalks, while ginseng is more herbaceous and likely to break cleanly at dirt level.
In the spring, buckeye sends up an inflorescence of small, yellow to white flowers. In the fall, the leaves and stem will turn a deep red color, when ginseng leaves might turn a pale yellow.
Wild Strawberry – Fragaria vesca
These plants are one of the least concerning cases of mistaken identity when trying to identify where you planted your ginseng last fall. At best, you will pull up a plant that isn’t intent on hurting you, and at worst, you’ll miss out on a field snack.
The leaves of wild strawberry, when seedlings, tend to be much closer-knit than ginseng leaves and only sport three large leaves.
Wild strawberries tend to have deeper veins that run to the serrated tips of the leaves, then curve inwards on each other – almost as if they are folded in at the central vein. Each leaf also has fine hairs that will feel hairy or sticky when touched.
As the strawberry plant matures, the differences become more pronounced. The leaves become much broader and more oval-shaped, with deeper venation.
In late spring or early summer, white, rounded flower clusters will begin to bloom on the strawberry plant. From mid-summer to early fall, they will begin to grow bulbous-shaped berries that ripen from green to bright red with dozens of seeds embedded in the outside of the fruit’s flesh.
Poison Ivy – Toxicodendron radicans
This cringe-worthy story is reason enough to identify ginseng’s lookalikes ahead of time. Imagine plunging your hand into a mass of green leaves where you thought you had planted those ginseng seeds last fall, and coming back up with the tingly, telling rash of poison ivy.
These two plants are often misidentified when they are seedlings when the poison ivy is still growing into its leaves.
As a seedling, poison ivy tends to be a brighter shade of green than in mature plants, making it look like a different plant entirely.
If you look at poison ivy’s leaves up close, you will notice that there are several differences in the leaves compared to ginseng. First, poison ivy leaves tend to be grouped in threes. The leaves also tend to be glossier, almost to the point of look wet, especially when they are smaller.
Much like the Virginia creeper, poison ivy is a running vine, so if you pull the vine up – with a gloved hand, mind you – you can easily pull it away from the ground and find it attached to other plants or lightly rooted in the topsoil. Poison ivy can trail along trees and other plants to grow into a small shrub on occasion.
In the fall, poison ivy leaves turn a bright yellow, then bleed into a deep, rust-red coloration, while ginseng often remains a pale yellow.
What Else Looks Like Ginseng Root?
Mandrake, or Mandragora spp., is so commonly associated with ginseng that many people confuse it with the same plant. This plant is a member of Solanaceae, a family of poisonous plants commonly called Nightshade. While this family is home to many poisonous plants, it also houses common agricultural crops, such as the common potato, eggplant, and tomato.
Mandrake is a powerful hallucinogen and narcotic; ingestion should be avoided at all costs as the poisonous root can easily be fatal to those who eat it.
Luckily, the leaves of this plant look nothing like Panax spp., however, many still confuse the root with Mandragora, as both are prized for their humanlike appearance. Fortunately, the mandrake root is seldom sold in place of ginseng, and you can easily tell the two apart if you know what to look for.
- Wild ginseng root does not take on a humanlike shape until it is fifteen to twenty years old. Most ginseng plants are harvested between five and ten years of age.
- Mandrake root is slender and long, while wild ginseng root is bulbous and tends to be shorter.
- Wild ginseng root is typically more rigid and composed of large “root sections” while mandrake typically has finer “root sections” giving it a smoother appearance.
In addition to these striking differences, Mandrake is native to the Mediterranean and commonly found throughout Eastern United States. It is not often found in the same region where ginseng is found, which can help legal ‘seng hunters breathe easy during their harvest.
- S. Fish & Wildlife Services, American Ginseng, https://www.fws.gov/international/plants/american-ginseng.html
- David Bressan, Rare Plant Species Face Extinction Due to World Population Growth and Climate Change, https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidbressan/2019/11/28/rare-plant-species-face-extinction-due-to-population-growth-and-climate-change/?sh=3be46229d8cf