One of the easiest ways to find ginseng is to first look for the kinds of places it likes to grow. Those plants that grow in the same habitat as ginseng are known as indicator plants, or ginseng companion plants. It’s good to know the companions because ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) can be a difficult plant to spot. If you’re out looking for ginseng, you’ll know to look harder if you’ve already spotted the companions. The plant seems to show itself to some but not to others. I’ve spoken to many people who have never found it on their own even though they stood side-by-side with someone else who could point it out to them. I’m that way when it comes to hunting morel mushrooms. I cannot find them, even if I look exactly in the right kinds of spots. According to people who find them, morels have their own kinds of companion plants (and trees). During spring morel hunts, my friends come back with bags of gathered morels and I stand there empty-handed. Not so with ginseng. I can find that one!
Finding the clues: Ginseng Companion Plants
In one of my other posts about ginseng, I talked about choosing the best site to plant. Those tips can also help you find ginseng if you’re hunting it.
Indicator plants are those plants, shrubs and trees that like to grow in the same sort of environment as another plant. They keep the same company because they require the same habitat. When I first go out to the woods, even in a place I know has ginseng, I have a difficult time spotting the first ginseng plant. They have a way of growing that makes them hard to see, but once you’ve found the first one it’s easier to find more. I think the first one somehow trains the eyes to see that form. It’s like this every time I go out. I have to find one first, then the rest become easier to see.
If you’re scouting woods for likely places to either plant or find it, here are a few of the companion plants you’ll want to keep an eye out for. They’re much easier to find than ginseng itself.
|Black Cohosh flower|
Before I could finish this article, I had to hike out to one of my favorite spots to get a few more photos. And before I could download the photos I had to take a shower with dishwashing liquid because I encountered poison ivy. I’m not terribly reactive to it, but when I go out for photos, I am often right down on the ground so I can get close up shots of things that are also close to the ground. There’s a lot of poison ivy (to help with id of this plant, see my Ginseng Look Alikes ID Guide) on the ground in my favorite spot. And ticks too. Poison ivy is NOT an indicator plant. In fact, if you see too much of it, it’s an indicator that there is probably too much sunlight in that location. And such was the case with my favorite spot until recently. However, it wasn’t always like that.
Before the ice storm of 2009, there was dense shade in that little holler. During the ice storm many of the trees fell and tops were snapped off, which then let in much more sunlight than had been there prior. And that’s what allowed the poison ivy to grow so densely there. It has taken nearly five years for the forest to recover to a point where the shade has returned to proper density. In the meantime, the ginseng suffered but it didn’t die except in the spots where a tree opened a gap to direct sunlight for too many hours per day.
Most of the ginseng companion plants can tolerate more sunlight than ginseng. Maidenhair and Christmas ferns can tolerate more shade than can ginseng. But the ivy can also tolerate shade and thus it is still there even as the tree’s limbs have stretched to fill in the canopy. If we avoid more ice storms, it’ll eventually fade back toward the brighter areas and leave the deep shade alone.
With a little help from the companions, you’ll be able to find suitable habitat for one of our greatest natural treasures, wild American Ginseng. The knowledge you gain will help you become a better conservationist if you choose to grow your own “virtually wild” ginseng rather than dig the wild.
Practice Ethical Hunting and Harvesting, and Consider Growing Your Own
Ginseng has a specific season when it’s legal to harvest, and specific practices that will help ensure the plant continues to exist in the wild. Please follow the laws of your state regarding how and when to harvest. For the state of Arkansas, those rules are here (it’s a PDF file). I also go over specific practices to help the plant survive in my book Sustainable Ginseng.
You might wonder why someone who conserves the wild ginseng wants to hunt it. When I find wild ginseng, I don’t dig it. I record where I found it and observe the habitat, photograph the plants and environment. Then I use the information I gather to become more successful at growing it. From the plants I’ve seeded on our property, I also plant the ripe berries and redistribute them to places I want to establish new colonies. (Never gather all of the seeds of a plant, and never dig without planting the seeds.) To know where to plant, it helps to know the preferred habitat of ginseng.. My hope is that you’ll become interested in growing wild-simulated ginseng, and for that you’ll need to know the kinds of places ginseng likes to grow. Wild-simulated, or virtually wild, is simply the practice of planting seeds and allowing them to grow naturally. No tilling, no fertilizing, no weeding (except perhaps in the beginning to clear out underbrush). Then in 7-10 years, begin a sustainable plan for harvesting. That plan would include taking no more than 50% of the seed-bearing plants from each colony, and always replanting the seeds from those plants in the original area.
This article is an excerpt from “Sustainable Ginseng”, a small information-packed book by Madison Woods. Through their company Wild Ozark™LLC, Madison and her husband Robert encourages people to conserve our wild ginseng. When we grow ginseng from seeds and leave it alone to grow naturally, the root is indistinguishable from true wild. This is called “virtually wild” or “wild-simulated” and it is a sustainable way to generate a profit from the plant while enabling the wild plant to recover from over-harvesting and habitat loss.
Curious about how ginseng looks when it first comes up from the ground in early spring?
If you’re trying to find suitable ginseng habitat, you might enjoy our new guidebook:
And if you’re trying to tell the difference between ginseng and the other plants commonly mis-identified, check out our new I.D. Key: Ginseng Look-Alikes.
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