Ginseng is one of the world’s most popular herbal remedies. Both American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and Asian ginseng (P. ginseng) have been used for everything from aphrodisiacs and stimulants to muscle relaxants and diabetes treatments; thier use throughout history is renowned.
If you use ginseng and you live along much of the East Coast, anywhere bordering the Mississippi River, or in the Pacific Northwest, you’re in luck. You don’t have to drive to the nearest herbal store or shop online to buy this wonder herb. You can grow it in your perennial garden or, if you’re really lucky and have a woodland-type environment or one that is mostly shade, you can grow it just like it grows in nature – especially if your wooded area is on a sloping terrain.
Ginseng is particular about its soil requirements, and it’s a good idea to have your soil tested, advises Jenny Cruse Sanders, vice president for science and conservation at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. “The plants need a more neutral soil and will not do well in acidic soil,” she says. “A soil pH of about 5.6 to 6 should be fine. Depending on the pH of your soil, consider adjusting the pH with lime to get the right balance.”
Other than living in the right geographical area (ginseng can’t tolerate heat, so in the Deep South you would need to live in or near the Appalachian Mountains), being able to provide the correct soil pH, and having about 80 percent shade, you’ll only need to meet one other requirement to grow ginseng. Patience. And plenty of it. Ginseng can take from five to 10 years to reach a size where the prized roots can be harvested.
Here is a step-by-step process to grow ginseng using what is called the wild-simulated method. This method seeks to duplicate how ginseng grows naturally.
Order seeds or roots
Ginseng can be grown from seed or roots. Roots, of course, will reach maturity much faster than seeds. If ordering roots, do not cut them into sections. Ginseng roots must remain whole and can be planted in spring before they begin to bud, usually March or April, or in the fall after the berries have fallen.
If you live near the Appalachians within the natural range of the species, look for locally sourced seed from a trusted source, Sanders suggests. “The ideal seed will be organically grown (whether it is certified organic or not).” It is also important if ordering seeds through the mail to always buy them from a reputable grower.
Seeds from ginseng plants do not sprout the next year. They will sprout the year after falling to the ground because it will take them a year to lose the flesh of the berries that encase them and gain enough energy to sprout. This is process is called stratification. Most ginseng seeds offered for sale are stratified. "Green" seeds that have not been stratified are available, often at half the price of stratified seeds. Many ginseng growers prefer to pay the higher price of stratified seeds rather than wait a year on green seeds to become viable.
Select a suitable site
The ideal location will be in a well-shaded wooded area of 80 to 90 percent shade where hardwoods trees – such as tulip poplar, maple, beech, hickory, walnut, and oak – are growing. The thicker the canopy the better as this will cut down on the number of understory plants that will over-shade or out-compete ginseng. If the growing area gets too much sun, the amount of light will encourage grass and weeds to grow, and these will choke out the ginseng. In a wooded natural habitat, the best place to plant ginseng will be on a north- or east-facing slope where the ground will be cooler than on south- or west-facing slopes. You’ll know you have the right spot if ginseng companion plants are growing in the area. Plants that favor the same growing conditions as ginseng include trillium (Trillium s.p.p.), blue or black cohosh (Caulophyllum thalactroides, Cimicifuga racemosa), jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema atrorubens), wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum). Excellent drainage is essential; avoid areas heavy in clay.
Sow the seeds in the fall or early winter when the ground is moist. An ideal time to do this would be after a rain or snow. Space the seeds at least 14-18 inches apart. To plant, clear leaf debris and use a knife blade to verify that there are at least 2 inches of soil before you hit any layer of rock. Dig a small hole about 1/4 inch deep, drop a seed in the hole, and then cover the hole by firmly pressing the soil down and adding up to 3 inches of the leaf debris over the planting area. The wild-simulated method requires that no tilling be done, which could increase the possibility of activating soil pathogens that could harm the seed. If planting on a slope and creating a bed with a rake or hoe, run the beds up and down the slope rather than across the slope to create optimal air and water drainage around the plants.
As mentioned above, it will take anywhere from five to 10 years for your plants to mature. Luckily, they won’t need any maintenance during this time. Periodically check the crop for pest or fungus problems. Other than that, just let the plants grow as they would if growing naturally from seed. They will compete with other plants, and many of your ginseng seedlings will probably die. However, the hardships your "wild" plants that survive will endure is what will give them their unique character and – if you can bear to part with them – a price 10 or 20 times higher than cultivated ginseng.
The first order of business is to dig carefully to avoid damaging the root. Push a pitchfork or needle-nose spade into the ground about 6 inches from the plant, dig under the plant and gently pry the root loose. If there is any risk of damaging the roots of adjacent, immature ginseng plants, do not attempt to harvest the plant.
Wash and dry the roots. Briefly soak the roots in a bucket of cool water to remove excess soil. Then place the roots in a single layer on a wood tray (do not let ginseng touch metal) and wash them under a sink faucet or with a hose. Do not scrub them or wash them too vigorously – some of the medicinal chemicals are thought to be concentrated in the root hairs, and removal of these hairs will decrease the usefulness and value of the root. Make sure the roots are not touching and let them dry on a wooden rack in a well ventilated room.
Growing ginseng in pots
If you decide to grow ginseng in pots on a patio or deck, let the wild-simulated method be your guide. Plant the seeds and cover them with about 1 inch of decaying leaves or mulch. Plant the seeds in the fall. They will sprout in the spring. The seeds can be planted in small plastic trays or peat trays and transplanted when they become several inches high. When transferring the seedlings to pots, choose plastic pots that are at least 8 inches deep. Don’t use clay pots for ginseng because clay absorbs moisture and dries out more easily than plastic. For decorative purposes, plastic pots can be inserted into clay pots. Be sure to keep the pots in a shady area.