Ginseng: Everything You Need To Know

Ginseng: Everything You Need To Know
Luke Sholl
Luke Sholl
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Panax Ginseng

What Is Ginseng?

Ginseng is a popular Chinese herbal remedy that's made from the root of the ginseng plant. It's sometimes called "man-root" because the multi-limbed rhizome of wild ginseng plants take on a human-like shape. Other nicknames include "root of life" and "root of immortality".

Due to its ever-increasing demand, ginseng is also one of the most expensive herbs on the market today. Some premium wild ginseng roots have sold for as much as $200,000 USD. Although rare, sales like that do happen for ginseng hunters lucky enough to stumble across a ginseng plant that's matured naturally for well over a decade. To be considered harvest-worthy, ginseng must be several years old; it grows very slowly. Wild roots sell for $500–600 USD a pound on average. Cultivated ginseng, on the other hand, is only worth about $50 USD a pound.

There are three different types of ginseng plants: Korean (Panax ginseng), American (Panax quinquefolius), and Siberian (Eleuthero). Korean ginseng is the most powerful and most valuable. American ginseng has similar health benefits, but it's not nearly as energising. Siberian ginseng is totally different. Although it does have some value in herbal remedies, it does not contain ginsenoside (AKA panaxoside), the active ingredient in Korean and American ginseng.

Over time, Ginseng became so popular in Asia that profiteers overharvested this highly coveted plant. That means authentic Korean ginseng is rare and hard to find. As a result, the United States exports tonnes of American ginseng to China every year. Even if you purchase a ginseng product that's made in China, you may receive American ginseng. Pay close attention to the labels and only buy from a reputable dealer.

How To Grow Ginseng?


If you'd like to grow your own ginseng, it's possible, but it will take a lot of time and patience, plus the right environment. The plants grow slowly and they're picky about their surroundings. It helps if you live in a place where wild ginseng flourishes, such as the US East Coast, the Pacific Northwest, or Asia. To be successful, you should simulate the conditions that wild ginseng prefers, choosing a sloped woodland area with natural shade instead of a typical garden setting.

Ginseng grows best in soil with a neutral pH level. If it's not in the 5.6 to 6.0 range, adjust with soil amendments like lime before you plant. The desired area will also need to have about 80–90% shade and not get excessively hot, even in the summer. Make sure you'll have access to the plot for years into the future and that the ground will not need to be disturbed for any other type of project. Your newly planted ginseng may need a full decade for the roots to reach the desirable size.

If possible, keep your new enterprise a secret. Because of its value, ginseng theft is a real threat. Poachers have been known to sneak into fields under the cover of darkness to dig up roots well before the owner would be ready to harvest in order to make some quick cash.

1. Buy Ginseng Roots Or Seeds

You can grow ginseng using either seeds or roots to start your garden. One or two-year-old rootlets are sold to new farmers so they can quickly establish their fields. They'll take hold in the soil easier than seeds, and you'll see live ginseng plants emerge much faster than if you started from seed. Plus, you'll also have a headstart on your harvest. Once you get the hang of growing from roots, try growing from seeds. You can harvest your own as your plants get older, or you can buy those too. You'll get many more seeds than roots for the same amount of money.

If you're in an area where ginseng grows naturally in the wild, like the Appalachian Mountains, try to find a local source for your seeds and roots. Not only will you know they're fresh and authentic, you may be able to see where they grew and get some ideas for your own garden. Moreover, a local source might be more willing to answer your questions after your purchase than someone online.

A reputable seller will only ship ginseng roots and seeds in the fall when they should be planted. But don't wait too long to look for one; the best sources often have waiting lists and take pre-orders.

Seeds come in two forms: green and stratified. Green seeds are picked that year and are still encased inside the berry. If you sow green seeds, they will not sprout until the second spring after they're planted. It will take them that long to shed the flesh of the berry and fully mature. A stratified seed, on the other hand, is no longer encased within the berry. They cost about twice as much as green seeds, but they will germinate the first spring after they're planted in most cases.

2. Choose Your Site

Look for a wooded area with mature hardwood trees like walnut, oak, maple, or hickory. The canopy should provide about 90% shade and there shouldn't be a lot of smaller trees or bushes under the canopy. The shade will keep your developing plants cool in the summer and prevent crowding from undergrowth.

Choose a site on a slope that faces east or north. These areas are cooler than those that face south or west. The sloped area will also help the soil drain; ginseng does not like to grow in soggy areas. Clay-based soil should be avoided. Plants that like to grow in the same conditions as ginseng include goldenseal, black cohosh, and wild yam. If you see those growing on your potential site, you've found a good spot.

3. Plant Your Roots Or Seeds In The Fall

Wait until after it rains or snows to plant your roots or seeds. The ground should be moist, but not saturated. Before planting, make sure you're not planting directly above a rocky layer in the soil. If a stick will easily penetrate the soil to a depth of at least 5cm, you're good.

Start by removing any of the fallen leaves or natural mulch covering the area where you will be planting. Sow the seeds about 50cm apart. Poke a hole about a centimetre deep, drop the seed in, cover with soil, then pack it down firmly. Finally, recover the area with about 8cm of the leaves you removed when you started to plant. This is a wild-simulated method that requires no tilling.

Roots must be kept moist prior to planting and should be placed into the soil whole. Plant as soon as you receive them or store in the refrigerator. If stored, they must be aired out daily to prevent mould or rot. Don't try to stretch your order by breaking them into sections. Plant rootlets using the same spacing as seeds, but they'll need to be positioned in a larger hole at a 30–45° angle. The top should be a couple centimetres below the surface once the soil is replaced.

4. Let Nature Take Its Course

This is where patience comes in. You have no choice now but to wait until spring for the young plants to emerge. There's nothing you can or should do to help them. They'll have to thrive, or not, on their own—just like wild ginseng.

Whether you start from root transplants, green seeds, or stratified seeds, not every one will result in a ginseng plant. Viability rates depend not only on the quality of the seeds and roots, but the weather, how they were planted, and their environment. Sometimes, if a spring season is hotter or dryer than usual, even stratified seeds will lie dormant until the next year when conditions are better.

5. Harvest Mature Roots In Five To Ten Years

Be very careful when you dig up the roots of a mature plant. You don't want to break any of the root hairs or damage any immature plants nearby. Starting about 15cm away, use a small pitchfork or spade to loosen the soil around and under the plant. Finish with your hands, gently wiggling the roots from the soil. Once the root has been picked, place it on a wooden tray. Keep all the roots in a single layer to promote airflow and prevent breakage. Wash them briefly and gently before drying on wooden racks. Never let your ginseng touch metal if you can prevent it.

The Chemical Composition Of Ginseng

Like most edible plants, ginseng roots contain carbohydrates, sugars, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, but ginseng's saponins are the active components responsible for most of ginseng's health benefits. So far, scientists have identified 13 saponins in ginseng. They're referred to generically as ginsenosides or panaxosides.

The History Of Ginseng


No one knows when mankind first started using ginseng as a tonic. The first time consumption was recorded was in an ancient Chinese text from the first century AD. This writing by Chinese herbalists claimed the roots could brighten the mind, prolong life, and increase wisdom, as well as improve sexual vitality. Its reputation as a potent aphrodisiac has made ginseng a popular and highly sought-after herb throughout the centuries.

Early practitioners of Chinese medicine probably tried ginseng initially because the roots resemble a small man. This unusual appearance would have made them think that ginseng would benefit the human body as a whole, in the same way they thought walnuts were good for the mind because they looked like a brain. As crazy as that sounds in today's world, this was a common practice in ancient times and even has a name: the Doctrine of Signatures. In the case of ginseng, the doctrine was spot on.

Before long, all of China had heard of ginseng's reputation as a virtual fountain of youth. As a result, the Chinese government and lords sought to control the regions where ginseng grew wild in those times, and it soon became worth its weight in gold. Wars were fought, lives were lost, fortunes were made, and today, natural wild ginseng in Asia is very rare and incredibly expensive due to overharvesting.

American ginseng is now one of America's biggest exports to China. Some is cultivated using either traditional or simulated wild conditions, but wild ginseng hunting also attracts many people in need of money in the Appalachian and Smoky Mountains. Hunters scour the mountainsides, often trespassing on private lands in search of small green plants with red berries and roots that can sell for enough money to carry them through the coming year.

Some will replant seeds as they collect mature roots, but others dig up anything they can find with no regard for future generations. As a result, strict regulations have been created to control who can hunt for ginseng, as well as when and where they can harvest.

Luke Sholl
Luke Sholl
Luke Sholl has been writing about cannabis, the wellness potential of cannabinoids, and the positive influence of nature for over a decade. Working with several cannabinoid-centric publications, he publishes a variety of digital content, supported by strong technical knowledge and thorough research.