Want to know how to find ginseng? Look for the right habitat. The easiest way to do that is to look for companion plants.
September 20 2017 – It’s full-swing harvest season now, and plenty of you are out in the woods looking for ginseng.
I hope you’re either on your own property or have permission from the landowner, wherever you are.
In some of the locations where ginseng is native, the berries are red and this makes spotting the plant from a distance a little easier. The plants begin to take on a yellowish color, too, which is another visual aid.
However, in other locations, plants may already be past the fruiting stage with only a red berry clinging here and there. Although the plants may be yellowing, they may already have dropped some leaves or bugs have eaten some of them, making it harder to know if the plant you see is actually ginseng.
Be good stewards
A short version summarizing my idea of sustainable harvest plan is farther down on this page.
Many people are asking where exactly can they find or go to dig ginseng. If you’re asking that question, you probably won’t like the answer.
Legal season for digging for ginseng is Sept. 1 through Dec. 1. If you have the proper habitat, I encourage you to plant wild-simulated ginseng using seeds from as local as possible a source. We usually plant our seeds in fall before it gets too cold.
How to Find Ginseng?
First look for the right habitat. Look for the kinds of places it likes to grow.
Where does ginseng grow?
Ginseng grows in moist deciduous forests of eastern North America, but only in locations that provide the perfect combination of deep shade, moist loamy soil, and the right mix of trees. It loves the north-facing slopes, but also grows on east, west, and rarely on south-facing slopes. Most often it likes the lower third of a slope, generally not the mountain tops. Here’s a map from the USDA (the map doesn’t seem to be working at the moment, but the link is correct) that shows where it grows in the United States.
If you want to know if your state allows the harvest of ginseng, you can check to see if it’s on the map here. If not, then there are no regulations, which often means there is no legal way to do it. You’d have to contact the Plant Board or your local USDA office to ask more questions.
Where EXACTLY can I find ginseng?
You probably won’t like the answer. No one is going to tell you where you can go to find a specific patch of ginseng. The reason why is because if someone knows the plant well enough to tell you where it is, they’ll also know it’s endangered and easily exterminated from a single site. That person usually is either digging and maintaining the patch for themselves, or is protecting/stewarding the site so it can continue to thrive.
If you don’t have property of your own with suitable habitat, or know someone else with the proper conditions, you probably won’t have anywhere to dig or grow. Some states might allow digging on public lands, but many don’t. Arkansas does not.
So if you are someone who just became interested in digging some ‘sang to make some money from the roots, you’re most likely out of luck.
- you have land (your own or a friend’s) & you want to know if ginseng is present or could be
- you’re looking to buy property and want to know if it contains good habitat
- you’re working with others to build a sanctuary
Then the rest of this post might be very helpful to you.
Start Broad – Look for the Ginseng Indicator Plants
If you want to know how to find ginseng, first learn to find proper habitat.
Increase your odds
Check the USDA map to see if ginseng grows, or has ever grown, in the area of interest. For example, if you live in Arizona, it is highly unlikely that you will ever successfully grow this plant. If you want to try, then you’ll have to recreate the kind of habitat that supports it.
Shade and moisture
First look for mature trees. The following are present in the areas I’ve found ginseng:
It needs to NOT be all oak/hickory/cedar/pine. Ginseng will grow on any slope. North-facing is best, but it’ll grow facing any direction if the shade and moisture are right. It is most often right on north-facing slopes. There are sometimes “folds” on south-facing slopes that create mini-habitats on the north-facing inside of the fold.
Found the right forest?
Once you have the right kind of trees and good moisture that comes from the right shade, then look for 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 or Indicator 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. And here’s a post that might help explain why you’re not finding it. Here’s another page 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 more mature.
♥ Ginseng indicator plants, also called companion plants, are those plants, shrubs and trees that like to grow in the same sort of environment as ginseng. They keep the same company because they require the same habitat.
Wild Ozark Resources
- Here’s a post with photos to answer the question “How does ginseng look in fall?”.
- Here’s a post where you can see how ginseng looks from spring through late fall on my page Ginseng Through the Seasons.
- If you like art, you might enjoy my sketch of “Ginseng in May”.
- For a general post on what a ginseng plant looks like, go here.
- If you have questions about ginseng that aren’t answered in this post, try my page on Questions About Ginseng.
- And if you were confounded by look-alikes all season last year and want a little help, check out my latest book “Ginseng Look-Alikes”.
Finding the first ginseng plant
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. Look for goldenseal, black cohosh, pawpaw trees, American spikenard, virginia snakeroot, bloodroot, blue cohosh and wild ginger.
Photos of the companions
Here’s some of the ones I see most often around here in the Ozarks:
Want More Ginseng or Companion Plant Pictures?
There’s lots of photos on this blog if you’d like to just browse around a bit. Click on the “Ginseng Blog Posts” icon to get all of the posts that mention ginseng.
A Note about Poison Ivy
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.
Poison ivy recently moved in and choked out a good ginseng habitat on our property. 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.
The ginseng suffered and much of it died or went dormant because lost trees 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 legal harvest season. Ethical practices will help the plant to continue 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.
Except when our personal stash is low, when I find wild ginseng (in season), I don’t dig it. I record where I found it and observe the habitat, photograph the plants and environment.
Why I study
I use the information I gather to become more successful at growing it and I share what I’ve learned with my blog and book readers. 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 ginseng, is simply the practice of planting seeds and allowing them to grow naturally.
A Summary of Sustainable Practice for Wild-Simulated
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 only a small portion of the oldest plants. Always replant the seeds from those plants in the original area.
This harvest plan would also be what I consider to be a good way to “steward” the wild if you intend to harvest it when you find it.
Other Ginseng Posts You Might Like
- What’s the Big Deal About Ginseng?
- 5 Ways to Tell if You Can Grow Ginseng in Your Backyard
- Can’t Find Ginseng?
- First Year Ginseng Looks Like Wild Strawberry
- More Ginseng Posts
If you have questions, please leave a comment or use the Contact link in the menu to get in touch. I’m always happy to help if I can.
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Predator 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, 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.
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.