Ginseng has long been used in traditional medicine in numerous Asian and Native American cultures. As a highly prized commercial product, wild ginseng has been over-harvested, leading to it being legally protected in both Asia and North America
Both Asian and American ginseng are herbaceous perennials. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) grows to 10-15 inches tall in eastern North America in hardiness zones 3-8. Forest farming of ginseng has a long-standing tradition in Appalachia. Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is frost-hardy and grows to about 8 inches tall. Today, it is mainly found growing in the remote mountains of Korea, China, and Russia.
How to Plant Ginseng
While collecting the seeds of wild ginseng is legal, given its scarce nature, you will most likely need to purchase seeds or seedlings from a commercial grower.
Growing From Seed
Seeds can be stored until you are ready to plant. Before planting, soak them for 10 minutes in a 10% bleach solution to prevent fungal infections. Sow seeds 1 ½ inches apart. Seeds will sprout in early to mid-spring, at which point, thin them to 3 inches apart.
Growing From Seedlings
Seedlings should be planted immediately upon arrival from a commercial grower. Plant seedlings 3 inches apart, then water in.
Ginseng Plant Care
Ginseng is a woodland plant, so your goal should be to reproduce those conditions as much as possible. Once planted, however, your ginseng will need little care.
Light and Air
Ginseng grows in partial to full shade, with good air circulation. If you can’t find a natural tree canopy to plant under, you can create your own with artificial structures.
Soil and Nutrients
Prepare a bed with soil up to 8 inches deep underneath mature hardwood trees, preferably on a northeast-facing slope. Ginseng requires well-draining soil, rich in humus, with a slightly acidic pH level.
Before your plants reach maturity, water regularly only as much so that the soil does not dry out. Once your plants have reached maturity, to retain moisture you can cover your plants with leaf litter—the only soil supplement your plants will need. During an extended drought, be sure to keep the bed watered—frequent applications of a moderate amount of moisture are better than infrequent deep soakings.
Temperature and Humidity
American ginseng is a wide-ranging plant, with a native habitat from Louisiana to Quebec province, but it is best grown in a cooler climate that replicates the relatively constant humidity of its woodland environment. An area subject to flooding or standing water will rot the valuable roots.
How to Harvest and Store Ginseng
Even the harvesting of commercially grown ginseng is limited to mature plants (at least three years old) and only in late summer and fall.
Ginseng can survive for a long time—it can even outlive humans—so there is no reason to hurry a harvest. Starting no earlier than the plant’s fourth year, carefully dig up your crop with a shovel so as not to damage the roots. Gently wash off the dirt, then dry your ginseng in a cool, dry, well-ventilated room. Larger roots can take multiple weeks to dry, so turning the roots daily will speed up the process and prevent mold.
Store your dried ginseng in a wicker basket or other well-ventilated container. You can sell your mature roots to wholesale buyers or directly to customers online. Supplement your income by harvesting and selling seeds or seedlings. What you can’t sell, follow an old American tradition and brew yourself a pot of ginseng tea twice daily.