Ginseng has been used in China for over 5,000 years as a medicinal plant. In 1716, American ginseng was also discovered in North America. In China, the plant has become rare due to over-harvesting, so much of the ginseng harvested in the U.S is shipped to China. However, over-harvesting is making the plant rare in the U.S, as well. There are a few ways you can positively identify a ginseng plant if you do come across one in the wild, or if you need to identify plants you've grown yourself.
Look for a plant that grows about 1 to 2 feet from the ground. In the wild, ginseng grows in shaded areas around hardwood trees where there is rich, well-drained soil.
Identify plants with leaves that match ginseng plants. Ginseng usually has five leaves that come together and join at one point. Young plants between 3 to 4 years of age may only have two prongs of leaves, and older plants of 5 to 9 years of age will have three prongs of leaves.
Differentiate your ginseng plants from American Spikenard, which looks similar to Ginseng and is more common. Spikenard also has five leaflets, but only three of them come from a single point. The remaining two leaves will attach at a lower point on the stem.
Look for small greenish while to yellow-green flowers on the plants you believe to be ginseng for a more positive identification. Confirm that these flowers form a bright red berry in the late fall.
Open the red berries to look at the seeds. Ginseng contains between one to three wrinkled seeds in each berry. Make sure to disperse the seeds on the ground if you are doing this in the wild since it is federally protected as an endangered plant.
Check the stem and roots to confirm their identity to ginseng if you are using plants you've grown yourself or are harvesting wild plants in their legal season to be harvested in your state. Ginseng has a stem with rhizomes or eye shaped marks, which is connected to roots shape like a parsnip when young and forked when older. The root may be 2 to 4 inches in length and about an inch thick.