Can You Grow American Ginseng in Your Backyard? Here’s 5 Things to Look For:
1. Check the USDA map. Do you live in an area where it is known to exist or existed in the past?
2. Look for the proper slope and aspect. North-facing is best, but under certain conditions (enough shade, mature trees) other work out well here in the Ozarks.
3. Is the ground moist but not soggy? Here there are springs in the area, but not right around the ginseng.
4. Are the trees mature, and are they the right kinds of trees? Look for maple, beech, ash, redbud, poplar, dogwood, oak and hickory, but not all oak and hickory. The dead leaf cover on the ground is critical.
5. Do you see any of the other companion plants? Bloodroot, black and blue cohosh, doll’s eyes, christmas ferns, goldenseal, and maidenhair fern are the most common here.
Why Grow Ginseng?
American ginseng is a perennial herb that grows in the mesic forests of the eastern United States. The root is a prized medicinal herb, highly valued by Chinese consumers. It’s on the CITES list, meaning it’s endangered and its export closely regulated so it doesn’t go extinct.
Many people are eager to dig and sell the roots because it sometimes can bring $500/lb (dried) or more. However, with the influx of interest more people are digging it than ever before. This puts the sustainability of our wild ginseng in a much more precarious situation. It also has the potential to cause a glut in the market which in turn lowers prices offered by buyers to diggers.
The biggest danger is that so much ginseng will be dug from the wild that the plant will have a hard time maintaining an already faulty footing. It’ll become even harder to find. Which will in turn cause dwindling supplies, which will cause the prices per pound to rise, which will inspire even more fervor to dig. As more and more old plants are harvested, younger seed-bearing plants make up the bulk of a colony. This causes less than optimal genetics, resulting in smaller and smaller plants in future years. It could become a disastrous situation to the wild ginseng that has managed to survive the past ravages of harvesters.
Traditional diggers, those who had fathers and grandfathers digging the same patches they dig today are very careful to dig only what the patch will support and they are diligent about reseeding. New diggers who don’t have this history of stewardship behind them might be unaware of the effects their actions this year might have on following years.
Plant Wild-Simulated (Virtually-Wild)
One of the ways to insure the plant’s survival for generations to come is to grow American ginseng, wild-simulated is best, on private property. When you plant this way, the roots will be indistinguishable from true wild and you can sell your harvest to buyers for the same prices as wild.
What this means is that the only difference between your plant and a wild plant is how the seed came to be in the ground. In a true wild, the seed was dropped from the mother plant or by an animal that had consumed a berry. In wild-simulated, the seed was placed in the ground by you.
I don’t till the area, although I will sometimes clear extra underbrush. I don’t water, or fertilize, or cultivate, or spray herbicides/pesticides. All I do is plant the seed. If I’ve planted too many seeds in a spot, I’ll transplant them to areas where they’ll have more space or put the extras in the nursery for sale as potted plants at market.
Avoid Genetic Pollution
It’s also important to protect the wild plants that might already grow on that same property. So there’s the conundrum, although it might not be immediately evident.
Certain areas, like the Ozarks, have a certain genotype of wild ginseng growing in the hidden hollers and hills. It passes on the genetic information of its type to the new plants coming up from seeds produced in its colony. When seeds from outside sources are introduced there is the potential for “genetic pollution”.
Ideally, you would want to plant seeds that came from your specific region. However, it’s illegal to harvest and sell seeds from wild plants. And there’s the problem.
What to Do?
How do you avoid genetic pollution if the seeds available to you legally came from sources outside of your area?
This is why I suggest we plant only seeds that came from the region where they are to be planted. However, the only source of seeds I’ve been able to find even remotely close to our own area come from Missouri. And the propagator of those seeds originally sourced his seed from the Appalachian region. So there doesn’t seem to be a win-win solution, even though I want to do what is best for the plant.
A small save is that it may be legal in your state to gather the berries from your native plants and plant them in the same area. This will at least broaden your colonies. You may also be able to move the berries from plants on your property to other areas of your property, starting colonies in new locations.
However, in order for me to sell the seedlings and the seeds, I must purchase seeds until my “wild-simulated” plants begin producing enough seed for me to harvest seeds from those.
My compromise has been to avoid planting in the places where wild is already growing. This may not be an ideal solution, because insects and critters travel after consuming berries or pollinating plants. They may be spreading the genetic information from my introduced species to the wild species anyway. Until I find a better way, this is how I’m handling it here at Wild Ozark. If someone reads this post and has a better idea, please leave a comment.
For pictures of ginseng and companions in their native habitat, check out my latest book: