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What does a ginseng plant look like?

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?

First year

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.

What does a ginseng plant look like? This first year seedling looks much different than older ginseng plants.
A first year ginseng seedling at Wild Ozark.

Second Year

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.

2-prong ginseng plant in May
2-prong ginseng plant in May.

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

A 3-prong ginseng plant with flower bud on May 18.
A 3-prong ginseng plant with flower bud.

What does a ginseng plant look like when it is five years and older?

A 4-prong ginseng plant with flowers beginning to open on May 18.
A 4-prong ginseng plant with flowers beginning to open on May 18.

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.

What does ginseng look like?
See how this three-prong ginseng plant has a horizontal form?

The root

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.

A ginseng habitat in a pot! This one includes a 3-year old American ginseng with a handful of companions for $75.
A ginseng habitat in a pot! This one includes a 3-year old American ginseng with a handful of companions for $75. Available only for local pickup by appointment (May through August). Included companions may vary, but there will always be a 3-year or older ginseng plant in the mix. Contact me by emailing [email protected]

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. I’m not against digging ginseng for profit but I am 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. Try to use seed from source plants as nearby as possible. For those in the Ozarks, I recommend Although his seeds originally came from (I believe) West Virginia, the plants are more similar to our Ozark plants than those from Wisconsin or Tennessee and Kentucky.

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.

More resources

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 online shop for $5 or get the paperback for $19.99 from Amazon, or e-book versions from various retailers.

Ginseng Look-Alikes

The Ginseng Look-Alikes Guide will help you to tell the difference between what is ginseng, and what is not.

Paperback cover for Ginseng Look-Alikes
Also available in PDF at our online shop and from various other retailers.

I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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A. Foley

Hi Ya’ll. I encouraged Spyterweb to checkout Jack in the Pulpit. In my area it definitely can be a look a like & confuse you. Fruits red berries at the same time of year etc etc. Google it if not already aware. Be Safe G’Luck &Happy Foraging!


This is a fantastic write up on ginseng, and I found it was very helpful! I do have a question that I am hopefully someone here may know the answer to. I know young ginseng can have 3-5 leaves on a prong, but it was my understanding that it has… Read more »


Your pictures do give great detail. Here in ky. I love going ginsenging with my dad. Its really fun.


Thank you! I was reading a book written in 1911 called The Harvester. It talked about ginseng so much I wanted to see what it looked like. Your article & photos are great!

Bill Mc Donald
Bill Mc Donald

I found red ginseng on my land that the person who had my house before me planted it here.I have had this house for 25 years and people who knows about ginseng have said wow it is strong.

Linda jackson
Linda jackson

Are the leaves thin and hairy, or smooth?


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[…] might help explain why you’re not finding it. There’s another page on this site that shows the ginseng plant as a seedling, two-prong, three- and four-prong, if you’d like to see how it looks as it gets […]

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