American ginseng, also known by its scientific name Panax quinquefolius, is a small, perennial plant that is native to the eastern and central United States and Canada. It is often found in forest environments. Its root is known for its medicinal properties, and as a result is highly prized. The United State Department of Agriculture indicates that several states now classify ginseng as endangered, threatened, or of special concern.
The plant grows from 10 to 15 inches tall. It can live for many years and may take as long as five years to fully mature. In its first year, the plant produces only a single stem or prong, that is only 2 to 5 inches tall with only two or three leaflets. Each successive year, the plant will put out more leaves and leaflets until it matures.
Leaves, Flowers and Fruit
On a mature plant, each leaf is medium green in color and usually has five leaflets that radiate from a central stem. Each leaflet is around five inches long, lance-shaped or oval with a pointed end and toothed edges. The flowers are a small bunch of tiny, fragrant, white blossoms. The fruit is a cluster of bright red berries.
The stems of the plant lead underground to a thick, tuberous root that can have several small rootlets attached to it with many long root hairs. The roots can sometimes appear to have limbs, giving them an almost human appearance. The roots are golden to light tan in color with a pungent, aromatic fragrance, particularly if broken.
Ginseng grows from hardiness zones 2A in northern Canada to zone 8B along the Gulf coast of the United States and east from the center of both countries to the Atlantic coast. It is frequently found under the canopy of hardwood forests and often grows on slopes, hillsides, and in ravines. The plant is also found in bottom land and swampy areas.
The ginseng plant dies back in the winter and sprouts new stems and leaves every year. It can take up to five years for ginseng to mature enough to flower and produce fruit. Flowering occurs in early to mid summer and the fruit ripens in late summer or early fall. The fruit usually contains one or two seeds.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as CITES, currently regulates the sale and distribution of American ginseng. It can only be exported if there is proof that it was obtained legally and its harvest did not endanger the species.