Guide to Harvesting Wild American Ginseng

american ginseng roots

Ginseng root is well-known for its medicinal properties and it is both grown commercially and harvested from the wild. Actually, there are 11 different species of ginseng and they have a similar appearance. The ginseng that most people in the world are acquainted with is probably the one that is alternately called Asian, Korean or Chinese ginseng and it grows mostly in eastern Asia, in cooler areas. Asian ginseng has been used for medicinal purposes for several thousand years.

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is a species that is native to North America and some herbalists claim that it is stronger in action than the Asian counterparts. American ginseng has been used medicinally by Native Americans for about the same length of time that Asians have been using Asian ginseng.

Before thinking of harvesting wild American ginseng, you should be aware that some states don’t allow harvest. It is important to check with the US Forest Service in your location to find out if you can legally collect it.

According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, American ginseng can be collected in 17 states; Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin. In several other states, it can be grown for harvest, but wild American ginseng can’t be legally harvested.

What American ginseng looks like

Picture by the USDA, public domain

Picture by the USDA, public domain

American ginseng grows about a foot tall, with erect stems. The stems normally have three leaves, each leaf being divided into five leaflets. The scientific name, quinquefolius, is a reference to the five leaflets. The leaflets have fine teeth. The flowers of the plant are yellow and these give way to berries that grow in a cluster and that are red when ripe.

The part that is most often used medicinally is the root, which can grow up to six inches long, though normally it is half this length. The root is often forked and it has rootlets near the end. The flavor of the root is both sweet and slightly bitter. The root also grows quite slowly. Most harvested roots are 5-10 years old or older.

Where American Ginseng is Found

This wild herb is primarily found in eastern Canada, the Ozark mountains and in the Appalachian mountains. It grows in deciduous forests, in the rich soil of leaf litter. Because of the distinctive look of the plant, it is normally not difficult to find American ginseng by simply wandering about deciduous forests. The best time to harvest it is late in the year, when the trees have begun to lose their leaves. At this time of year and into winter, the roots reach their strongest potency.

It should be noted that in states where harvesting of wild American ginseng is legal, a ginseng permit is normally required.

It is interesting that though American ginseng is grown commercially in China, most of the American ginseng that is harvested in the United States is exported to China. In fact, American ginseng is the most exported CITES plant species in America. (CITES stands for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.) This is a wild herb that isn’t particularly difficult to grow, though. It just takes a long time for the roots to fully develop.




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