This post will show you how a ginseng plant looks from the first year seedling to a mature, berry-producing plant.
You’ll learn about how it changes in appearance from the seedling as it grows older. I’ll show you what “prongs” are, and explain my own theory on what it means to be a responsible ginseng steward.
What does a ginseng plant look like?
A ginseng plant looks different in its first year. In the first year it has only three leaves and looks kind of like a strawberry plant.
The appearance changes in the second year and sometimes looks more like a more like the ginseng plant you might expect.
In year two it may have two prongs (see next section for “prong” explanation), or still only one. The set of leaves might consist of five or only three or four leaflets. But it is beginning to look like a classic ginseng plant.
What the heck is a “prong”?
A “prong” is one set of leaves. This set of leaves (usually five, with three larger and two smaller) is attached to a stem branching off from the main stem. Two prongs means it has two sets of leaves, and two stems coming off the main stem.
There is always only one main stem to a ginseng plant. As the ginseng gets older, it can have two, three, or four prongs. I’ve never seen one with five prongs. You can make a rough approximation of age by how many prongs a plant has.
- None- only three leaves means it is the first year seedling.
- Two- each prong may have up to five leaves but possibly less. Means it is at least two years old.
- Three- Usually this plant will make flowers and a few fruit when it becomes three-prong. It is at least three years old but could be older.
- Four- A four-prong plant is mature. It makes flowers and usually a full set of fruit each year. It is probably older than five years and could possibly be older than twenty.
Three to Five Years
What does a ginseng plant look like when it is five years and older?
What does a ginseng plant look like in the woods?
Here’s a good photo from a little bit of distance that gives you an idea of how the plant looks in relation to other plants around it. Notice the plane of the leaves, how it’s horizontal with the ground.
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I have a separate post with a picture of a ginseng root, if you want to see how that looks. This one is different looking because it has two roots and two necks, but there’s only one bud for next year’s growth. Most ginseng plants will only have one neck and root.
I have a nature sketch of a 4-prong ginseng in May, and I show how I did it at my nature sketch blog.
Be a Good Steward
Many people are interested because they just want to go out and dig ginseng because they’ve heard the price per pound is lucrative. We’re not against digging ginseng for profit but we’re very concerned with poaching and unsustainable harvests. Here at Wild Ozark, we suggest:
- you learn how it looks so you can identify wild or your own wild-simulated if you planted any seeds
- you learn what it needs to thrive and stay viable so that if you have the right environment and habitat you can either sustainably harvest some of what you have (if you have enough) or
- steward the wild population until it reaches that point if not already there, or
- re-introduce ginseng to your land by planting locally-as-possible sourced seeds
If you have wild ginseng on your property, please don’t introduce seeds from another locale to that habitat. Instead, use that habitat as your learning laboratory. You can replant the seeds from those plants in that same habitat. It’s illegal to take the seeds away from there, though. If you want to plant more ginseng than what you have already there, do some wild-simulated seed planting in a different area.
If you don’t have your own land for this, or access granted by a landowner, I don’t know of any other way to “go out and dig ginseng” without crossing the line to doing something illegal or unethical.
I have a lot of blog posts here with photos of ginseng and other plants of the Ozarks.
There’s a ginseng resource page here at the website but I have fallen behind in updating it. Still lots of good links to other websites there, along with links to a bunch of my own.
Our beautiful book full of photos:
American Ginseng & Companions is a photo essay with more than 70 photos of ginseng, companion plants, and Ozark mountain ginseng habitat. You can download a PDF copy at the Wild Ozark Nature Boutique for $5 or get the paperback for $19.99 from Amazon, or e-book versions from various retailers.
The Ginseng Look-Alikes Guide will help you to tell the difference between what is ginseng, and what is not.