How Do You Identify Ginseng?
You can identify wild ginseng by following the information laid out in the article below. It is important to be able sift through your own natural underbrush to identify the ginseng crop you are cultivating, so let’s learn a bit about how to distinguish the plant before we go digging up our cultivated crop.
Before you set out cultivating your own crop, however, you will want to make sure that you live near where ginseng grows natively. If you’re too far outside of growing zones, it will be more trouble than it’s worth.
Popular spots for cultivating ginseng range anywhere from Louisiana to Michigan, even though the wild range of ginseng may not extend that far. A ginseng population map, such as the one linked above, can help you identify where it is possible to cultivate ginseng, as well as where it grows natively.
Generally, the older the plant, the easier it will be to identify it. Once your ginseng has matured, the leaves will become more bulbous and the serration won’t appear so severe, making it easy to tell apart from look-alikes such as wild strawberry seedlings.
To the untrained eye, it can be difficult to sort through the underbrush of dozens – or even hundreds – of green, leafy plants. It can seem nearly impossible if you only have a vague understanding of what ginseng looks like.
There are so many images online and in books that showcase just the root, which is the product that you harvest. The root is entirely underground, and people expect us to be able to pick that out from a laundry list of thirty other plants in front of us?
Fortunately, it isn’t difficult to learn how to readily identify ginseng once you practice looking at individual plants, rather than a conglomerate of the forest floor.
What is “Wild Ginseng” and How is it Different?
Wild ginseng is highly sought after, especially if allowed to mature. What is referred to as “wild” ginseng is indeed the same species as what you might be cultivating in your backyard woodlot.
The main difference between your cultivated crop and “wild ginseng” is not in any spectacular genetic mutation or anything of that sort; simply that the root is harvested wild. Try that on for size, wild ginger.
Allowing a root to mature in natural conditions where it is forced to struggle and survive through unmanned conditions gives the root a bulbous appearance. Of course, this is only if it has been allowed to mature long enough.
The bulbous appearance doesn’t typically occur until the plant is about 10 years old, sometimes even older. It is particularly sought after by export traders because it makes American ginseng look much more like its Asian counterpart, Panax ginseng.
Before you close your laptop and you run into your backyard woodlot, there’s an important, short disclaimer that needs to be out in the open:
I do not encourage or support the harvest of wild ginseng plants.
Not only is harvesting wild ginseng illegal in many states, but it is further lowering the population of an already critically endangered plant. Some states do have regulations in place to allow you to harvest during a certain time of the year so long as you are licensed, but we would rather see a new generation of ginseng stewarded to help the population progress. If you find a native ginseng crop, your actions can directly affect the conversation of a species and should generally always be left to park rangers or your local conservation authority.
What Does Ginseng Grow Around?
Ginseng grows around a variety of plants we like to call ginseng’s “companion plants” which are plants that grow in the same conditions and regions as ginseng.
Ginseng farmers who want to cultivate and harvest their own crop will likely be doing so in their own woodland area, and that means there are plenty of other plant species willing to make their home near this plant.
These companion plants can sometimes look very similar to what you’re trying to cultivate, especially when your ginseng is just a little sprout in the ground.
In the case of missing markers, invasive plants, or identifying the plant as you pass on your evening hike, it’s important to understand the differences between your ginseng and any plants native to the surrounding environment.
When you go out to harvest your crop, the last thing you want is to grab a fistful of poison ivy by accident or lock on to a budding buckeye tree that has just started to grow into its thorny stems.
What Does Ginseng Look Like?
This plant is leafy and pleasing to the eye, standing as tall as 15 inches. Each stalk typically grows three sets of leaves which branch into their own respective clusters of leaflets.
Ginseng quinquefolius stem, petiole, and leaves.
If we look at Panax quinquefolius up-close, we’ll notice that there are three to five palmately compound leaflets. This means that it is arranged like an outspread hand and the leaflets are attached directly to the petiole.
Typically, there are three large leaves and two leaves at the base that are much smaller.
As a young seedling, there may only be three leaflets for the first year or two until the additional leaves grow in.
The base of each leaf is wide, and the edges have serrations all the way down. The leaf tips are pointed, sometimes extending past the leaf edge to come to a sharpened point.
A scan showing the top and bottom of a ginseng leaf and petiole.
The first set of leaflets the plant grows are typically equal sized with long stalks, while the outer leaves have short stalks and considerably smaller leaves.
Ginseng flowers growing in.
Flowers typically appear between the second and fourth years as a small set of orb-like umbels along a single stalk. One stalk can house an average of 30-50 flowers. The flowers in the above examples are young; they are just starting to come in and have not yet reached their full shape. Soon, the flowers will be almost spherical and full of white stamens.
The flowers are typically green-to-yellow, or green-to-white, and contain both stigma and stamen (female and male parts.) They require insects like wild bees and syrphid flies for pollination.
To recap, this is what Ginseng looks like:
- Leafy bush, up to 15 inches (38 cm) tall
- Leaves grow in threes
- 5-pointed palmately compound, or “hand-like” leaflets
- Only 3 may be visible if the plant is young
- Leaves have a wide base with serrated edges and pointed tips
- Small, whitish (to green or yellow) flowers in umbel formation
Want to Learn More About Ginseng?
Enjoy more in-depth information about how to identify, grow, and harvest your own American ginseng crop in HerbSpeak's new book: How to Grow Ginseng.
In this book, you’ll learn everything you need to know about growing ginseng – specifically American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius – and how to care for this wonderful plant from seed to harvest.
Beyond that, you’ll learn why such a small root has earned such an honorable reputation, and what you can do to help keep this plant in our lives no matter what your motivation for growing ginseng is.
Your journey into the world of ginseng starts here.
Once pollinated, ginseng can produce berries. These berries typically bloom after their fourth or fifth year, but the plant may not produce berries every single year.
When berries do appear on the plant, they typically begin as small green dots beginning in early Summer, then turn from that to a pale yellow, and then into a bright red, juicy berry cluster as Summer fades into Fall.
These berries contain one or two ginseng seeds each, so when your ginseng plants begin to showcase their red berries, they’re ripe for replanting. Replanting your own seed can help defer any future seed costs but be sure to get to it before the squirrels and songbirds do.
Not only is harvesting wild ginseng illegal in many states, but it is further lowering the population of an already critically endangered plant.
Remember this? Good.
If you ever come across wild ginseng, planting those berries will help give the wild population a fighting chance. Songbirds, moles, voles, and humans all pose a big threat to the survival of the wild American Ginseng species. Ginseng’s wild population is dwindling faster than you can say “conservation efforts.”
While many states won’t allow you to take wild berries for your own cultivation without a permit, it is still important to plant the berries near the mother plant if you come across it in the wild!
Root-like people, or people-like roots?
Ginseng Roots in Human Shape
The root has made quite a symbol for itself, with uniquely branching “arms and legs” and a root neck that captures the imagination, many people believe it grows in the shape of the human body. Because of the “human-like” root growth, wild ginseng is widely sought after, having become a symbol of whole-body health and vitality; a cure-all.
Compared to the mystical human shape of wild ginseng, cultivated American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, might look rather straight and unimaginative, if you were to grow it in typical farming conditions; typically called Field Grown ginseng.
In the other, more “wild” methods of cultivating ginseng can help it achieve this erratic, “human” shape.
How Can You Tell the Age of Ginseng?
You can tell how old ginseng is by the notches, or scars, left on the “root neck” that makes up the “head” of your ginseng. This is the rhizome, and each year of growth adds a scar. These scars occur because the leaf stem dies back every autumn with the cold. In spring, it regrows at the top of the rhizome, creating new growth and leaving a scar where the old tissue went dormant.
For example, a ginseng plant that has been growing for five years will have four scars along the root neck.
We hope this guide has been helpful and you feel more confident in identifying American ginseng.
With more awareness of the plants around us, we can all continue the conversation efforts of American ginseng. Ginseng is an important part of our ecosystem, and an important medicinal root for our society.
American ginseng used to be much more common in the mideastern states and into Canada before its unfortunate over-harvesting. If you want to learn more about ginseng, visit the HerbSpeak library and look for the book “How to Identify Ginseng.”