Ginseng is one of the most commonly consumed herbal supplements in the United States, and while little scientific evidence is currently published to back it up, ginseng is often used to treat colds and flus while reportedly also boosting memory, regulating blood sugar levels and acting as an antioxidant.
This is not a new trend; the Cherokee used ginseng frequently as a medicine and even actively re-seeded areas they had removed plants from. While there are Asian varieties of ginseng, American ginseng grows along the East coast with extra abundance in the Appalachians. This slow-growing plant possesses unique chemicals which are especially potent in the roots. The chemicals, called ginsenosides, are thought to give ginseng a hearty defense against fungi and diseases and a bitter taste to ward off grazers.
Ginsenosides and the other chemicals found in ginseng are what have made the plant a choice for herbalists throughout human history. Wild populations across the East Coast seem to be dwindling, and care must be taken to make sure that ginseng continues to thrive in our mountain forests.
A plant of relatively modest above-ground proportions, ginseng grows primarily in cool and shady deciduous forest floors.
First emerging in early spring, it seems to prefer growing around hardwood trees, and can reach up to two feet in height at its oldest. This can take some time; usually a plant matures at around five to 10 years. They can live for a very long time and establish thick and robust root systems. Even the seeds of ginseng are slow growers and can take up to two years to germinate.
The slow-growing nature of ginseng and the fact that the roots are their most desirable part, the harvesting of which requires the destruction of the whole plant, has led to their current rarity in the woods that they once dominated.
Early reports from European explorers and scientists indicated large populations of these plants basically all along the East Coast of the United States and Canada. They have been ravenously picked clean ever since, and wild roots can still fetch a high price to foreign and domestic bidders alike. This has led to rampant poaching of the haggard wild populations still around, and at the same time rising deer populations pick the forest floor clean of any young ginseng sprouts.
Luckily, there are many farmers working to restore some of these populations through the re-seeding of local forests. These helpful human hands can spread ginseng much farther and more reliably than the wood thrushes which are believed to be their primary means of seed dispersal.
The plants themselves are self-fertile. However, small hover flies and native bees also help them increase their genetic diversity through pollination.
Ginseng plants are very subtle and easily missed, however they have some signature traits that can be quickly identified. They normally appear as small singular stemmed growths with only a few compound leaves of three to five “fingers.” The age of ginseng can be roughly established by the shape of leaves, as they usually only have three fingers to each leaf when young but eventually have five-pronged leaves a bit similar in appearance to Virginia creeper.
The easiest time to identify these plants is in the fall, however, as they proudly display clusters of bright red berries. American ginseng is an interesting and valuable Appalachian plant, and I encourage you to admire the ginseng you see along your hikes and adventures rather than yanking them from their homes. By doing so, you can help ensure that future generations are able to admire these gems in their natural environments.
Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. Contact him at email@example.com.