When you think of the ginseng plant, you might think about the full plant in all its green and red beauty with the berries shiny and ready to be planted; but American ginseng doesn’t have berries most of the year. The beautiful red berries are only on the plant for a small window of time.
Ginseng often blends into the underbrush of other plants around it, becoming a part of the sea of greenery and foliage on the forest floor until the berries bring them into the spotlight with their bright red coloration and shiny texture.
The berries play an important part in the overall survival and conservation of the ginseng species, a plant species that is critically endangered and dwindling faster with nothing so much as a blip on anyone’s radar.
So, when does ginseng have berries, and why is that important? In this article, HerbSpeak unravels the mystery of American Ginseng’s fruiting habits and why it is important to learn for the conservation of the species.
Why Are Ginseng Berries Important?
Ginseng berries are important because they contain up to two seeds that will sprout a new ginseng plant. The berries, when planted with the seed, help the seed stratify until the following spring when it will begin to germinate.
Wild American ginseng, or Panax quinquefolius, is an endangered species that is threatened by illegal crop poaching and overharvesting. The wild population is dwindling, taking a very similar path as Korean ginseng, or Panax ginseng, which is now considered extinct in the wild, but widely cultivated.
Planting these berries, even if the parent plant is harvested, is a key factor in conserving the wild population. Ginseng is a slow-maturing plant which makes it difficult for new generations to establish themselves, especially in areas where plant predators are rampant.
Off-season harvesting, or harvesting of plants that are considered too young, especially those that are unable to produce berries yet, are factors that all harm the ginseng population considerably. Harvest seasons have been established in several states to allow berries to ripen fully and prime seeds for replanting, helping guide those who would still harvest the plant to engage in better conservation practices.
Ginseng is a plant that takes several years to mature, and it can take up to four to five years for a plant to even produce berries. To continue conservation efforts and keep a new generation of ginseng crop moving forward, ginseng plants should never be harvested before there are ripe, red berries present on the plant.
The berries have an easy, color-coded system that can help harvesters understand when a ginseng crop is ready for planting and when it is not:
Before the berries ripen, they are green and not ready for planting. Planting green berries may harm the pH balance of the surrounding soil and the seed will not be able to germinate properly. Red berries are primed for planting and may be planted in the soil at one inch deep, one foot apart. Berries should be planted near the pre-existing crop as it is a sure area where the plant can thrive.
Learning how to identify American ginseng can be helpful in picking out which areas to revisit in the fall to scout for berries.
When Does Ginseng Have Berries?
Ginseng has berries between June and September. In May, the white umbel-like flower clusters will begin to develop on the parent plant, which then develop green fruits between June and July. These fruits ripen into bright red, shiny berries starting in August, and begin to drop from the plant come September.
If you are looking for ginseng berries, keep an eye out for the unripe, green fruits in June and July, and come back between August and September to begin planting those bright red berries before the native wildlife carry them off as they drop from the plant.
It is important to note that changes in local climate can affect the time which berries appear on ginseng plants. Berries may ripen faster in unusually warm climates as the presence of ethylene, a phytohormone, has been known to cause berries to ripen faster. Likewise, climates that are unusually cold for the time of year might cause ginseng plants to experience a delay in berry ripening as the plant slows down. During unusual cold snaps, plants will slow down their allotment of energy towards fruiting and means of reproduction in preparation for potential frosts.
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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.
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Your journey into the world of ginseng starts here.
Finding a Mature American Ginseng Plant
When looking for a mature American ginseng plant, the red berries can be a big giveaway once they are in season, however, if you are scouting ahead of season for a ginseng patch that you plan to revisit, it helps to know which companion plants grow around ginseng.
Plants such as the Jack in the Pulpit, Wild Yam, and Trilliums are commonly found in areas where ginseng likes to grow, and so long as you are in a region where ginseng grows natively as well, you have a strong chance of discovering a ginseng patch nearby.
Ginseng plants are difficult to tell apart for the first three years of age. While it might be difficult to resist the temptation at this stage, it is critical to wait until ginseng plants are more mature before harvesting them so that you can plant the seeds for future crop growth.
Ginseng plants do not typically reach peak prices on the market – or peak desirability – until they are six years old, increasing in value onto twenty and thirty years old. Plants typically mature, growing berries and their palmate leaves are more obvious to pick out of the foliage once they are four to six years old.
Finding a mature ginseng plant takes skill and patience, even when the plants are mature. It isn’t until ten to fifteen years when the plant will begin to grow a secondary stalk with another set of leaves on it.
It is important to scout the area ahead of time because you might come across a ginseng patch with berries ready to ripen. If you wish to replant the seeds nearby the plant to aid conservation efforts and be able to look forward to a new crop in the coming years, you have to reach the berries before the native plant predators do.
American Ginseng’s Natural Habitat
The American Ginseng plant has a preferred natural habitat, narrowing down the area where ginseng can potentially grow in any forest. The plant will only grow in sandy, loamy soils that are well-draining with a high organic content – this organic content is typically mulch and leaves from years of leaf fall in mixed, hardwood forests.
While Ginseng may be cultivated outdoors in almost any state in the United States except Alaska or Hawaii – as well as southern California, southern Florida, and southern Texas – Ginseng grows natively in areas where these mixed hardwoods forests thrive.
Ginseng thrives in areas where the temperature averages 55 degrees Fahrenheit which is most common in the Appalachian Mountains or the Ozark, though it has been known to grow in zones 3-7 and occasionally zone 8.
The plant has also been known to grow natively in Ontario and Quebec, but the Canadian population of Panax quinquefolius is dwindling faster than it is in American states.
Surprisingly, which side of the hill makes all the difference when discovering ginseng patches. Most ginseng patches are on sloped hills facing north or east.
Harvesting Ginseng: Laws and Regulations
The laws around harvesting ginseng vary depending on the state and the season. Some states require you to register for a license, others only allow harvesting of ginseng plants of a certain age and only during certain seasons. Other states have banned foraging for ginseng entirely in an effort to continue conservation efforts.
Currently, only 19 states within the United States allow the legal harvesting of wild ginseng for export purposes. These states are Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and lastly, Wisconsin.
For individuals who are looking to harvest wild ginseng in a state that allows it, it is important to get in contact with the local forestry service to determine the specifics of that state. Laws and regulations are subject to change at any time, so online resources may not always reflect the current guidelines.
The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (1) has produced a general guideline for experienced and aspiring seng hunters alike:
- In most states, you may only harvest plants that are a minimum of five years old. These plants will have four or more root neck scars.
- Only harvest during designated ginseng foraging seasons.
- Have a license, if required by the state.
- Practice good foraging stewardship; get permission by the land’s property owner and only harvest plants with red berries so that you may plant the seeds.
“The 18 approved States with wild ginseng harvest programs have regulations in place that prohibit the harvest of plants with fewer than 3 leaves (3 prongs). Ginseng plants with 3 leaves are at least 5 years old. One State (Illinois) requires wild ginseng plants to have 4 leaves and to be 10 years old.”
It is important to note that the root neck may be checked without pulling the plant out of the soil. By simply removing some of the topsoil around the plant, you can check the root neck scars that are near the base of the stem.
Seeds must be planted near the harvested area at one inch deep and spaced about one foot apart. This allows the seeds to stratify and go through their natural germination cycle where they will sprout the following year.
Preventing Crop Poaching
For growers who are cultivating their ginseng crops as wild-simulated plants, they are typically doing so on natural forest terrain. Plants grown outdoors, no matter where they are, are at a risk for crop poaching by greedy ‘seng hunters looking to make a quick dollar on the market.
Crop poaching may not be wholly prevented, but ginseng farmers may take a few simple steps to help prevent crops from being poached, or if it is, prevent the whole patch from being dug up.
- Site selection
Site selection is a crucial step in preventing crop poaching, as plants (and later, berries) that are visible from common hiking trails or easily accessible roads stand the greatest chance of being poached. Whenever possible, make sure ginseng patches are deep in the woods and not easy to spot.
It is also ideal to break up patches, rather than planting acres at a time. By breaking patches up into small portions, poachers might find one or two patches, but the majority of the crop is kept safe.
- Trail cameras
Trail cameras are a reliable line of defense for farmers who wish to connect and upkeep the devices along the perimeter of their ginseng patches. Crop poaching is a very real crime, and it can help apprehend poachers who are harvesting ginseng illegally.
Signage around the perimeter of your property stating “no trespassing” and “danger” can help deter casual poachers or hikers who notice an opportunity.
- Removing berries come fall
Removing the berries from the stems and planting them as soon as viable is an important step in both preserving the mature crop and practicing good conservation for future generations. Alternatively, ginseng farmers might choose to stratify seeds in bulk themselves.
Are Ginseng Berries Edible?
Yes, ginseng berries are edible. The whole plant, from the roots to the stalk, leaves, and berry are edible, though the berries may not have superb flavor. In fact, there are some studies that suggest the berries have more medicinal benefit than the sought-after roots. (2)
“[…] phytochemical analyses determined that ginseng berries contained higher amounts of total ginsenosides than the root”
The flavor of ginseng’s berries is neutral, with a slight tart or starchy taste to the pulp. Some say that the berries can taste dry or bitter, much like the rest of the plant.
American ginseng berries are often compared to neutral-tasting cranberries, rather than blueberries or any other type of berry.
While this is great news for ginseng farmers with a cultivated crop – meaning they no longer have to waste the outer berry pulp and can process it into ginseng juices or medicinally rich extracts – there is no wonder why birds, squirrels, and other natural ginseng predators love the nutritious yet neutral-tasting pulp.
While the ginseng berries may be dispersed through the intestinal tract of foraging animals, planting the whole berry in the ground will allow the seeds to stratify over the following year, and important process required for the seed to sprout correctly.
- S. Fish and Wildlife Service, How to Determine the Age of Ginseng Plants, https://www.fws.gov/international/plants/how-to-determine-the-age-of-ginseng-plants.html
- Tae Kyung Hyun, Keum-II Jang, Are berries useless by-products of ginseng? Recent research on the potential health benefits of ginseng berry, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5547390/