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The Garden Scoop

American Ginseng

This week marks the half way point for the 2018 Illinois Ginseng Harvesting Season, which runs from the first Saturday in September through Nov 1.  Did you even know that ginseng grows in Illinois, let alone the fact that there is a regulated harvest of this valuable native plant? 

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is native to deciduous forests across much of the eastern US and Canada.  It thrives on sites with healthy, in-tact forested ecosystems, typically occurring on north-facing slopes that commonly have more fertile soils and more mesic conditions.  This once abundant native plant is still disturbed across Illinois, but is relatively uncommon today among our forest understories. 

A major cause of ginseng decline is overharvesting by humans, thus the regulated harvesting season in Illinois.  It is highly valued in Asian markets for its perceived medicinal qualities and historical significance, often fetching amazingly high values per pound.  This opportunity for high profits from a woodland plant has created a big incentive for many to harvest and sell ginseng.  Both the harvest and sale of ginseng are currently regulated under Illinois law. 

Early records of ginseng use in Asia date back as early as 1 B.C. in China, where American ginseng’s cousin, Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), was widely used as a cure-all-type remedy.  Its forked root (resembling the lower portion of the human body) was sought after for its health benefits and most notability its aphrodisiacal properties.  Older roots are particularly valued as many believe that the longevity of the root will be transferred to its human consumer.  

As early as the 1700’s, American ginseng was harvested in the US and shipped to Asian markets to meet growing demand as native populations in Asia declined from extensive harvest.   By the 1970’s, over-harvesting in the US reduced native populations to critical levels, causing American ginseng to reach endangered status.

In Illinois, ginseng is a long-lived and slow-growing perennial plant that develops a gnarly, elongated root structure over time.  Asian markets consider older roots more valuable as they develop irregular, forked shapes after many years of development in undisturbed forest soils.  Mature roots that naturally developed in the wild hold the highest value and cannot be replicated in cultivation.  However a large industry exists for cultivated ginseng (which is not regulated by law) that is primality used for the many products containing ginseng and marketed as health foods in the US and abroad.

Since the entire plant must be removed to get the root, harvesting has a high impact.  The current harvesting season is timed with fruit maturity in the hopes that ginseng plants can produce viable seeds prior to being removed from the forest.  The bright red berries produced by ginseng this time of year are hard to miss in Illinois woodlands as few other herbaceous understory plants have similar, red fruits in fall. 

As an additional conservation measure, Illinois law requires all harvested plants to be 10 years old, or older.  The rhizome or “root neck” must be attached to the root of any harvested ginseng plant as it allows for easy identification of plant age since a leaf scar is added each year to the vertical rhizome.  In the field, prior to harvest, a mature plant can typically be identified from the number of leaf stalks, or “prongs”, it develops.  Mature plants (usually 10 years old or older) will have 4 leaf stalks containing 5 leaflets each, while younger plants will have fewer leaf stalks present. Seed production typically begins at the “two prong” stage of development (commonly 2-3 yrs of age), but may not be substantial until the plant matures to bear four prongs.

It is interesting to me that it can take up to 10 years of development for a ginseng plant to reach full seed production and this fact underlies the necessity to conserve this species within our Illinois woodlands.  Currently, ginseng harvesting is prohibited on all state and federal lands in Illinois, although poaching is a constant pressure across both public and private land. 

Of the 18 states that regulate ginseng harvest, Illinois has the most stringent law, requiring plants to be 10 years old while many other states only require 5 years of age.  I hope this additional measure can work to conserve our native populations of ginseng.  If you plan to harvest ginseng, please be sure to educate yourself on sustainable harvesting methods so that future generations can enjoy this Illinois native.