Growing Ginseng in Your Woodlot - Spring 2002
by Robert Beyfuss
Introduction: For the past 3,000 years or more the roots of a perennial plant called ginseng have been a very important component of traditional Chinese medicine. The roots of wild American ginseng have been harvested, dried and exported from the United States and Canada to China, since the mid 1700's. Today, American ginseng is also a very important part of traditional Chinese medicine. It is used as an "adaptogen" which is a substance that allows the body to adjust to various types of stress. It is not used as a specific cure or remedy for any particular ailment but as a component of many medicinal herbal combinations that help people deal with the aging process and related disorders.
Presently there are dozens of over the counter herbal remedies, available in any local drug store, which contain ginseng or ginseng extracts. Ginseng has become one of the most popular herbs of the 1990's as Americans and Europeans seek alternatives to prescription drugs. Unfortunately many of the ginseng products available in local stores do not contain any American ginseng. Usually they contain extracts of either Asian ginseng, which is widely cultivated in China and Korea, or so-called "Siberian ginseng" which is a related plant, but not a true species of ginseng. According to the U.S. Department of commerce, as long ago as 1858 the U.S. exported more then 350,000 pounds of dried wild ginseng roots. American ginseng has been cultivated in the U.S. since the late 1800's, primarily in the northeast, southeast and the midwest.
Types of Ginseng
American ginseng, (Panax quinquefolium) is a native American herb with a range that extends from Southern Quebec to Northern Georgia and from the East Coast to the Midwest. It grows as an understory plant in the dense shade provided by deciduous hardwood tree species. It the Northeast it is most often found growing under sugar maple while in the southeast it is often found under tulip poplar or black walnut. In the Midwest it occurs beneath several different hardwood species including oak.
Field cultivated ginseng - is grown in raised beds in fields under artificial shade provided by either wood lathe or polypropylene shade cloth for a period of three to four years. In 1999 there were approximately 8,000 acres of "Field cultivated" ginseng in production in North America.
Woods cultivated ginseng - is grown in a forested environment in tilled beds under natural shade for a period of six to nine years.
Wild simulated ginseng - is grown in untilled soil in forests for a period of nine to twelve years or even longer. The dried roots of wild simulated ginseng closely approximate the appearance of truly wild ginseng.
Wild ginseng – is an internationally protected species. Its collection is either prohibited or strictly regulated in states where it occurs.
In recent years the world market price for field cultivated ginseng has dropped to near the actual cost of production. The prices of woods cultivated and wild simulated ginseng, on the other hand, have risen to levels that can be extremely profitable for landowners with suitable forest stands.
Ginseng seed has a complex dormancy requirement and is highly perishable if not properly handled from the time of harvest until it is planted. Typically the seed is extracted from the red, ripe berries in August or September by mashing the berries and floating the pulp off. The seeds are then mixed with moist, clean, coarse sand at a ratio of two parts sand to one part seed. The seed/sand mixture is put in a box with screen on top and bottom and buried underground for approximately one year. The box is dug up one year later and the seed is planted in the late summer or early fall. The seeds sprout the following spring, usually in mid April. Ginseng seed that has been stored for one year under outdoor conditions is referred to as "stratified seed."
Unlike many "alternative" agricultural commodities the market for ginseng is well established and easily accessed. Traditionally, fur traders, timber harvesters and other individuals who deal with forest products have purchased woods cultivated or wild ginseng for resale to dealers who export the overwhelming majority of the crop. Most states that have a protection plan for wild ginseng also have lists of licensed ginseng dealers. For details about your state program or a list of dealers contact your local Conservation Department.
The prices received by growers of field cultivated ginseng have been declining in recent years due to oversupply and are now in the range of approximately $12 to $20 per pound for dried root. Properly dried ginseng roots weigh about one third of their original fresh weight. The prices received by wild ginseng harvesters or growers of woodland ginseng have always been significantly higher and in some situations may approach $500 per pound or more. In general, the age and appearance of the root when harvested and the system of cultivation determine the price received by the grower. American ginseng is sorted into at least 40 different grades- based on root shape, color, taste, and age. Most growers know very little about the various grades of ginseng and simply sell all of their roots in bulk. The references listed at the end of this article include sources of seed, rootlets for transplanting, ginseng buyers and consultants.
Legal - Wild ginseng is an internationally protected plant. In order for it to be legally exported from any state it must be certified as being cultivated ginseng or, if wild plants are gathered, they must be harvested according to the rules and regulations of a state certification program, approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Currently, only 20 states have such a program. Prospective growers should contact their local Conservation Department for information regarding any local rules and regulations that might affect cultivation, including pesticide regulations.
Pests - Although woods cultivated ginseng is not often affected by many pest problems, occasionally they do occur. This is in stark contrast to field cultivated ginseng, which requires routine, often, weekly pesticide applications. Slugs can be a major problem in woodland ginseng operations. Prospective growing areas should be surveyed for slugs by using baits made from grapefruit rinds, banana peels or some other bait. Proper site selection, cultural practices and plant spacing can reduce or eliminate the need for any pesticide applications in many cases. There are several organic pesticides that may be employed in some northeastern states if necessary. Check with your local County Cooperative Extension Agriculture Agent before applying any pesticide to ginseng.
Costs and Returns - Ginseng growing in a forested environment is certainly not a "get rich quick" scheme as it takes a minimum of six to eight years of growth before root harvesting can occur. Prospective growers are encouraged to start with a very small investment, perhaps a few ounces of seed plus a hundred rootlets. Expand only if preliminary results are positive. Survival of seedlings and plants up to three years old is a good test of a prospective growing site. The lowest costs of production are associated with the "wild simulated" approach.
Perhaps the most crucial aspect of forest ginseng cultivation is choosing a proper site. Ginseng thrives in cool, moist, densely shaded woodlands that have well drained soil. Wild ginseng is typically found in calcium rich forest soils well supplied with organic matter. It is often found beneath mature deciduous trees and rarely grows in an exclusively coniferous forest. In the south, southeast, parts of the northeast and mid-west, slopes that face north or northeast and of 5 to 20 percent grade seem to provide optimal orientation and facilitate both air and water drainage. In the far north, for example Vermont and Maine as well as Quebec, south or southwest facing slopes are preferred. The ideal ginseng-growing site is one that has a thriving population of wild ginseng or resembles such a site in terms of tree species and ground plants. Prospective growers would be wise to investigate the ecology of wild ginseng in their region (see references) before beginning. Ginseng is often found growing among other woodland plants that indicate rich, moist soil, high in calcium. Local foresters, soil scientists, and other resource conservationists often can be called on to identify various soil types within any given region.
"Woods cultivated" ginseng site preparation begins with a general clearing of understory vegetation, small trees and as many rocks as possible. Test plots of less then 100 square feet should be planted in as many locations as possible within the forest at least one year prior to any serious site preparation. Microclimatic conditions are often unobserved initially but may be crucial to success. For wood's cultivated ginseng till the soil to a depth of four to six inches either with a rototiller or by hand. Raised beds are not necessary if the soil is well drained. Poorly drained areas are not suitable for ginseng. A complete soil analysis performed by your local Cooperative Extension office will be helpful to eliminate sites that are unsuitable. Good soil for ginseng soil usually contains at least 10% organic matter with relatively low levels of phosphorus and potassium. Soil calcium levels should be at least 1,000 pounds per acre with magnesium to calcium ratio of close to 1 to 10.
Purchase only stratified high quality ginseng seed from reputable dealers. Expect to pay up to $100 per pound and more for smaller quantities. No fertilizer or lime is applied to potential ginseng beds unless the soil pH is below 4.5. If pH is 4.5 or less, 50 pounds of ground limestone per 1,000 square feet may be tilled in before planting. If soil calcium levels are below 2,000 pounds per acre apply 50 pounds of gypsum per 1,000 square feet. If soil calcium levels are below 1,000 pounds per acre, look for another growing site. Never add manure, compost, phosphorus or any type of nitrogen fertilizer to a ginseng planting. A one to two inch layer of well-rotted or shredded hardwood leaves (preferably sugar maple) from the forest floor may be tilled in the soil.
For wood's cultivated ginseng stratified seed are planted at the rate of 40 to 50 pounds per acre in prepared beds (one to one and a half pounds per one thousand square feet) in late summer or fall, but before the ground begins to freeze. For wild simulated ginseng plant 20 pounds per acre. There are approximately seven thousand seeds per pound. Seeds are randomly broadcast by hand for wild simulated or tediously planted one inch apart in rows spaced six to nine inches apart for wood's cultivated. Many growers make four to six foot wide beds to facilitate weeding. The seed is covered with a one half to one inch layer of soil, tramped on and mulched with two to three inches of either shredded or intact leaves from the surrounding trees.
Occasionally, one, two, or three-year-old rootlets are planted horizontally (the roots are laid on their side not up and down) at a depth of one inch. These are spaced at one rootlet per square foot. Rootlets for transplanting cost significantly more then stratified seed but save years of time in the production cycle. One-year-old rootlets cost approximately 25 cents each. Two-year-old rootlets cost 50 cents and three-year-old rootlets cost $1.00 each.
"Wild simulated" ginseng planting involves similar site preparation without tilling the soil. In most cases the ground cover of decaying leaves and humus is simply raked away and seeds are pushed into the soil, tramped on and the leaf mulch is then raked back.
Annual maintenance of "woods cultivated" ginseng beds consists of hand weeding, removal or suppression of competing shrubbery, spraying of appropriate fungicides if needed, controlling slugs if necessary and fall thinning of crowded stands to achieve a final population density of one plant per square foot. Weeding is most crucial during the first two growing seasons.
Occasionally calcium is reapplied in the form of gypsum at the rate of five pounds per 100 square feet, which is broadcast on top of the beds in early spring prior to emergence. Established ginseng beds should be tested for calcium levels every two to three years. No fertilizer should be added to woods grown ginseng at any time. "Wild simulated ginseng" is usually left to grow on it's own after one or two seasons of weed control except for annual slug control if needed.
Harvesting and Drying
Ginseng roots growing in woodland sites are usually large enough to harvest after six or more years of growth. Harvest usually takes place in late summer or early fall. The freshly dug roots should weigh an average of at least one-quarter of an ounce each by that time. There is often great variability in the size and shape of the roots, even those growing next to each other. A "rule of thumb" is that from 100 to 300 dried ginseng roots are needed to produce a pound. A pound of freshly dug ginseng should consist of 30 to 100 roots. (dried ginseng loses 2/3 of its fresh weight) Ginseng roots are usually dug by hand, carefully, so as not to damage the root or the fibers that grow from the main taproot.
Freshly dug roots are washed with a strong stream of water from a hose, but never scrubbed. The roots are dried slowly in a well-ventilated attic or a commercial dryer that never gets warmer than 100 degrees F. They are carefully placed individually without touching each other on screens or in cardboard trays before drying. The drying process may take several weeks depending upon the prevailing weather conditions. Growers should talk to prospective buyers before attempting to dry the roots because some buyers prefer to buy fresh roots. Freshly harvested and washed ginseng roots will keep for months in a refrigerator if stored in an open plastic bag. Fresh roots are preferred for making certain types of ginseng products.
American Ginseng is gaining popularity among American and European consumers. Eventually a market for "organic" ginseng can be expected to develop, as western people become more familiar with this product. Woodland cultivation is the only possible way to grow ginseng "organically". Currently the production of woodland ginseng is so limited that almost all that is grown is exported to Asian countries. It will most likely continue to be in great demand since the Chinese market alone is enormous. American woodland ginseng is so expensive in China that only the wealthy can afford to buy it. As Asian economies recover from their current recession, demand will increase.
Growers associations have formed in several states including NY, Maine, Illinois and Wisconsin to address the marketing issues. Commercial woodland ginseng production is still in its infancy as an industry in the U.S. It is unlikely that supply will exceed demand anytime in the next twenty to thirty years. Ginseng cultivation will always be most profitable in naturally forested areas that have suitable environmental and ecological conditions.
Beyfuss, R.L. "The Practical Guide to Growing Ginseng" available from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Greene County, 906 Greene County Office Building, Mountain Ave. Cairo, NY 12413 for $6.00 postpaid
Robert Beyfuss is Agriculture and Natural Resources Program Leader, American Ginseng Specialist, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Greene County, 906 Greene County Office Building, Mountain Avenue, Cairo NY 12413 (518) 622-9820 email firstname.lastname@example.org
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