Learning the Difference: Ginseng or Buckeye?

Is it ginseng? No, it’s buckeye.

There are a few plants that grow here in the Ozarks that make it really difficult for newbies to identify ginseng. That’s because these look so much like ginseng to the inexperienced eye. These are called ginseng look-alikes. One of the look-alikes is Ohio buckeye (Aesculus flava).

This is a tree native to the Ozarks. It begins blooming in very early spring with pale yellow flower spires at the tip end of branches. The leaves are palmate, meaning it has five leaves or leaflets.

When the buckeyes are young, the saplings are only about a foot tall or sometimes even less. The little trees have a few branches on them already, spreading out to look a lot like the prongs of ginseng.

A common ginseng mis-identification culprit: Ohio buckeye
A common ginseng mis-identification culprit: Ohio buckeye

How to tell the difference

Although the leaves of buckeye are similar to ginseng, there’s some telling differences. At first glance they look alike. But look closer. American ginseng leaves are also palmate, but the two lower leaves are a lot smaller than the other three leaves. The ginseng in the photo is just finished unfurling so the leaves are still a little wrinkled. They’ll smooth out in a day or two.

On each palmate leaf, ginseng's lower two leaves are much smaller than the other three.
On each palmate leaf, ginseng’s lower two leaves are much smaller than the other three.

Aside from the size of the two lower leaves, the stems to each of ginseng’s prongs all meet up at the exact same spot on the stem. Not so with the buckeye. The branches (they’re not prongs) attach to the trunk (it’s not necessarily a stem, even if it is still small like one) at various points.

And a third way to tell is to examine the nature of the stem/trunk. Ginseng stems are not woody. Buckeye stems are. If you are careful, you could dig up both plants to take a look at the roots too. Buckeye roots resemble small tree roots (larger main roots with smaller roots attached) and they’re tough and covered with a sort of bark.

Ginseng roots have one main root, sometimes branched, but it does not have a bark sort of coating. The buckeye stem/trunk never dies back once it has begun growing. Ginseng stems die back every year and the root sends up a new one each spring. In fact, next year’s bud is already in place and waiting at the base of the ginseng stem. Buckeye will not have this bud.

Hands-on Get acquainted with Buckeye

Join me at the Nursery and Habitat Garden on May 6 if you’d like to get up close and personal to both ginseng and the look-alikes like buckeye. The “Pot 10 Keep 1” event will be going on and if you help me out by potting up ten ginseng seedlings for me, you’ll get to keep one to bring home. If you pot up a hundred, you’ll get to keep ten.

Or you can buy however many you want for $5/ea.

While you’re here you can walk the trails of my Ginseng Habitat Garden and learn to tell the difference between the look-alikes and the ginseng. The garden itself is not large and the trails are not long. It’s an accurate example of what the average habitat area looks like here, except this one has been restored. Years ago this land was logged, and this is one of the spots that is just now getting back close to habitable for the shade-loving plants like ginseng.

It’s not yet ideal, but close enough to work with.

You can get ideas for how to do the same thing on your own property and create a little sanctuary or lots of little sanctuaries as I’ve been doing.

How to Sign Up

Join the mailing list for this event so I can send you the address and update you on schedule changes. If it rains much the day before or the day of, we’ll have to reschedule. The garden is across the creek and if it’s high then it’s too hazardous to walk across it.

It’s completely free to participate! The garden is only open by appointment during spring, summer, and fall. During events like this one, I’ll be out there already, so no appointment necessary. All visitors are required to sign a hold-harmless liability waiver. Because nature is what it is. There are rocks, ticks, snakes, and treacherous footing all around and I can’t guarantee you won’t fall while crossing the creek or encounter some of our less friendly wildlife. But I can guarantee an experience hard to find elsewhere.

Sign up to join me on Potting Day




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Want to Read More?

Here on the website I have a lot of information about ginseng and the look-alikes. Here’s a good starting point: Ginseng Articles and Headlines.

Since so many people have a hard time telling the difference between ginseng and plants like buckeye, I wrote a small book dedicated to the main look-alikes. It’s purposefully short and sweet. You can pick it up from Amazon in both ebook or paperback:


First Hunt by Ima ErthwitchPredator and Prey, or the hunter and the hunted is a common theme throughout my fiction writing. No Qualms, one of my short stories (free at most retailers) is about about a predator/prey relationship. Symbiosis, my first finished novel, not published yet, deals with predator/prey relationships and the balance of energy among life on earth, sometimes symbolic and often outright. Many of my flash fiction stories (I have twitterfiction and 100-word flash stories) are also dealing with this same dynamic. This is a strong theme that runs through most of my fiction and is strongly influenced by life in the wild Ozarks where we live. My first published novel, First Hunt, also has a predator and prey theme to it. I guess it's just part of my nature.

Nature Farming


Wild Ozark is 160 acres of beautiful wild Ozark mountains. I call what I do "nature farming" because the land produces, all by itself, the shagbark hickory trees, ferns, moss, ground-fall botanicals, and the perfect habitats for growing and stewarding American ginseng. I'm co-creating with Nature - all of the things I use to make the Fairy Gardens and Forest Folk, the bark we harvest for Burnt Kettle's shagbark hickory syrup, are produced by nature without my input. This land is my muse for inspiration when it comes to my writing, drawing, and photography. It's truly a Nature Farm.

About the voice behind this blog, Madison Woods

I'm a creative old soul living way off the beaten path with my husband in the wild Ozark Mountains. Besides homesteading, growing plants & making crafty things and newsletters, I write books and stories. My rural fantasy fiction, written under the pen name, Ima Erthwitch, usually takes place in a much altered Ozarks.


8 thoughts on “Learning the Difference: Ginseng or Buckeye?

    1. Hi Tia, the flowers bloom in may here in the Ozarks (usually). This year they’re all running a little later and so the buds are there but none of them have opened yet. But I’d look for them at least by the end of May and probably within a couple of weeks. It’s not legal to collect them until September, though, and the plants have to be at least 5 years old here in Arkansas. Some states require them to be 10 and Missouri even requires the tops to still be attached. I’m not familiar with Kentucky laws.

  1. I should give more info. I live in Kentucky & just bought some land. My husband is the native here. He has collected ginseng before when he was young. But he works alot, so I will be on my own, for the most part, to look for ginseng.
    So I was wondering when the flower blooms?

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