The American ginseng plant (Panax quinquefolius) grows in the shade of woodland forests across the eastern United States. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state governments monitor the wild collection of the American ginseng plant to keep it from becoming extinct as a result of over-harvesting for the herbal medication trade. Wild roots command a much higher price than those privately cultivated, according to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Ginseng plants naturally grow in porous, humus-rich soil on north- and east-facing slopes in the woodlands. In a forest setting with abundant conifers and softwood trees, the plants are often found on north- and east-facing slopes. The plants only grow in shady locations. Ginseng requires at least 70 percent shady conditions to grow well.
Ginseng spreads by seed. The seeds must not dry out on the forest floor or they lose all viability. A period of cold stratification is required for germination to occur. Natural cold stratification occurs when the seeds are planted outside. Seeds must undergo an 18-month dormancy prior to germination. Then seeds must be subjected to 45 days of cold stratification at a temperature slightly under 36 degrees F for three weeks prior to successful planting.
Natural Mulch and Humus
In the wild, the leaf litter of the surrounding trees works as natural mulch around the ginseng plant. The leaf debris also acts as a wonderful humus additive to the soil, which helps supply the plants with much-needed nutrients.
Yearly Growth and Fruit Production
During the first year of growth, the ginseng plant produces only three leaflets. The second year produces five leaflets and runners begin to grow off the parent plants' base which produce individual prongs (leaves). The runners and prongs look similar to the growth of the strawberry plant according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. When the parent plant has grown and produced two runners with individual prongs, the flowers begin to develop all over the parent plant and the runners. Tiny berries form after flower production. Each berry holds two to three seeds.
Harvest of the ginseng roots cannot occur until the plants are at least 9 to 10 years old. Dig the roots up in the fall when the plants' foliage dies back. Most states offer certain harvest months during the year when a limited amount of plants are allowed to be collected. The entire plant is dug up and the roots are dried for harvest.
The ginseng plant can easily live up to 100 years or more. The stalk at the base of the plant develops scars as the stalk falls off in the fall. Counting each scar at the base of the plant will give you the ginseng plant's approximate age by years. Each scar represents one year of the plant's life.