By Matt Gibson
The use of ginseng root dates back to ancient China and spans thousands of years. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), ginseng is primarily used to provide energy and mental focus, to increase sexual drive and performance, and to treat anxiety by lower stress. Aside from these benefits, Ginseng is also used in TCM to help lengthen lifespan, increase vitality, regulate body systems, Improve cognitive function, restore qi (vital energy), prevent disease, and slow the effects of aging.
Ginseng plants are a challenge to grow, especially for beginning gardeners. They require plenty of shade to thrive, and consistently moist soil. More sun exposure will make the plant need more water. It can take up to five to ten years for ginseng plants to grow to full maturity and become ready for harvest. Ginseng will suffer anytime it is forced to compete with other plants for water and nutrients. Keep an eye out for weeds sprouting up in your beds and containers and pull up any that appear. Lay out a two-inch layer of mulch to deter weeds and pests, and to improve air circulation.
Though there is some skepticism in the Western world about the effectiveness of herbal remedies like ginseng, the popularity of ginseng in America still helps to drive the somewhat market price of the root. Cultivating ginseng in large amounts can actually be quite profitable, if you have money to invest in large scale planting and distribution.
Varieties of Ginseng
There are two main types of ginseng that are true ginseng cultivars, which are Oriental ginseng (Panax Ginseng) and American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). Oriental ginseng has long been revered in traditional Chinese medicine for its medicinal value. Also called red ginseng, Asian ginseng. The Oriental ginseng plant hails from Korea, China, and Siberia, though it is almost extinct as a wild species. The plant is cultivated commercially and has become very expensive due to its limited availability and increasing demand.
American ginseng, which is native to North America, is a cousin to the Oriental cultivar that grows in the Appalachian mountains. Cultivated primarily in the U.S. and Canada, American ginseng is considered mild, or cool by traditional Chinese medicine and used primarily for its calming properties and stress relieving power, compared its oriental cousin, which is considered hot.
There are a few other plants that can imitate ginseng but are not really ginseng plants themselves. Indian ginseng, Brazilian ginseng, and Siberian ginseng are all marketed as ginseng plants, but none are from the Panax family, and none are actual ginseng relatives.
Growing Conditions for Ginseng
Whether you are starting your ginseng crops by planting stratified seed, or transplanting small plants, good soil drainage and a well-shaded spot are the top requirements when selecting a location for ginseng. Choose a sloping bed with 75 to 80 percent shade coverage. Ideally, put your ginseng in a spot with little to no weeds and zero foot traffic. Plant in a raised bed lined with netting to simulate an ideal growing environment.
Alternatively, ginseng can be cultivated indoors in planters with drainage chambers, as long as they are placed in a location out of direct sunlight. Sow seeds in the fall about one and a half inches deep. Plant roots three inches deep, preferably early in the spring.
Ginseng is picky about its soil. Testing your soil is the best way to find out how to best alter it for growing ginseng. The plant will not grow well in acidic soils, and prefers a neutral range to alkaline soil conditions. The ideal soil pH is between 5.6 and six. Amend with lime to bring acidic soils into the neutral range. (Not sure where the pH level of your soil lies on the spectrum? Learn how you can find out in our article How to Test pH in Your Soil.
Lots of shade is essential to ginseng health, as these plants simply won’t tolerate much heat. If you live in the southern United States, growing ginseng indoors is your only reliable choice, as the hot weather is not an option for ginseng crops. Other than temperate weather, and amending your soil pH, you will need plenty of patience to grow ginseng to maturity. Ginseng can take anywhere between five to ten years to develop roots large enough for harvesting.
How to Plant Ginseng
The main requirement for growing ginseng at home is patience. Seeds can take up to 18 months just to germinate and seeds must be stratified first as well. So unless you locate seeds that have been stratified already, which is a task in and of itself, you will need to store your seeds in sand or peat in a refrigerator for six months before you can begin germination.
Once you have an actual plant in the ground, it’s another five to ten year wait before you will be able to harvest your first ginseng root. Purchasing seedlings cuts out a lot of the preparatory time, but it will cost extra money as well.
Plant ginseng seeds in the fall or early winter when the ground is slightly moist, preferably just after a light rain or snow. Space seeds 14 to 18 inches apart . Sow seeds a quarter inch deep, and cover by pressing down on the soil. Then, cover the planting area with a three inch layer of leaf debris mulch.
The process of planting ginseng seeds can actually be rather complicated as well. Some suggest planting ginseng by scattering seed, some by scattering seed individually. Some experts posit that because ginseng grows happily in the wild, it’s best to mimic its native habitat to grow it properly. General planting suggestions include spacing seeds three inches apart and covering loosely with just three fourths of an inch of soil medium.
Care for Ginseng
Ginsing prefers a consistently moist soil and needs a lot of shade. It is important when picking a location, to choose an area that mimics the plant’s native habitat. Amending your soil base with some peat moss and mulching with leaf litter will help to improve drainage and boost moisture retention. Extra watering is only necessary in drought conditions.
If you amend your soil well, no fertilization is necessary for ginseng, and additional food may actually negatively affect your plant growth. Amend with lots of organic compost.
How to Propagate Ginseng
Ginseng can only be propagated by seed. You can’t create a new plant from cuttings or root division. Propagating from seed can be difficult and seeds should be stratified before sowing. The easiest way to add ginseng plants is to buy established plants. The age of the plant you buy will determine how long you may have to wait for the plant to mature and develop roots large enough to harvest. The older and more established ginseng plant that you buy, the closer it will be to maturity and the smaller the amount of time you will have to wait to harvest it.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Ginseng
Ginseng plants are known to have problems with a few fungal diseases, especially when exposed to poor soil, and overcrowded growing conditions with inadequate air circulation. The common garden diseases known to trouble ginseng crops are leaf blight, damping-off, and root rot.
Prevent disease growth by giving your plants the best care and providing ginseng’s preferred growing conditions. Providing each of your ginseng plants with plenty of space and ample air circulation, as well as conditions similar to the plant’s natural growing environment, will help reduce the chance of disease. Most of the diseases that attack ginseng are fungal, so you may want to keep some fungicide on hand to spray your plants with at the first sign of infection.
Two garden pests known to attack ginseng are slugs and cutworms. Lay out beer baits to drown slugs. Just a small amount of beer poured into a shallow dish will distract the slimy, leaf-eating ne’er-do-wells. Other organic control methods for slugs include picking them off by hand and drying them out by mulching with sawdust.
Cutworms can destroy leaf tissue and leave unsightly messes in your garden beds. Manage cutworms with pesticides. Other insects might attack the ginseng plant, but none cause significant damage. Larger pests, such as mice, have been known to beat you to harvest, eating the roots of ginseng plants before they can mature. Deer have been known to annihilate entire ginseng crops.
Harvesting Laws for Ginseng in the USA
Because of popular demand and limited supply, state and federal laws involving ginseng production and harvesting are constantly shifting to highlight growing trends and to prevent over-harvesting. You don’t have to worry about harvesting laws when it comes to reaping crops that you grow in your own garden, however, it is always good to know the rules and limitations involving harvesting ginseng that is growing in the wild, in case you happen upon some and are considering adding the wild roots to your cupboard stock.
How to Harvest Ginseng
When ginseng finally reaches maturity, the root can be harvested during autumn. To harvest, gently dig around the plant until the root is exposed. Carefully work the root out of the soil, using your hands to dig around the root to free it from the soil without damaging its delicate runners. To preserve the root for extended periods, it can be dried and either sliced or grated.
How to Dry and Store Ginseng Root
There are several ways to dry ginseng root for storage. Different methods involve various drying methods using fans, stoves, heaters, and dehumidifiers. For small harvests, commercial herb drying systems are available, but they will not work for large root harvests. Large drying systems are available on the market, but prices are exorbitant.
Whichever drying method you decide on, the most important element to proper ginseng drying is timing. Rushing the drying process will result in inferior ginseng. Allowing ginseng too much drying time will result in mold issues.
There are two elements that need to be perfect to dry ginseng roots properly. Those elements are temperature and ventilation (or air circulation). Before drying, wash off your freshly harvested ginseng roots using a low pressure water stream. Never use water pressure or scrubbing to clean the roots, as bursts of strong water pressure and hand-scrubbing can easily bruise or damage the roots. Typically, ginseng roots are placed on drying racks or screens which provide good airflow.
Spread the roots out so that they do not touch each other. Occasionally rotate the roots to insure that they are drying equally on all surfaces. Keep temperatures between 70 and 100 degrees. Temperature, humidity, weather, and drying method all play a part in the time needed to dry ginseng roots.
With drying temperatures set at room temperature, or 70 degrees F, it should take around one to two weeks for the roots to dry out completely. Obviously smaller roots dry out more quickly than larger ones, which can take as much as six weeks to fully dry. Keep a close eye on the roots as they are drying to make sure that they are drying equally on each side. Roots that were dried correctly snap in two with ease and should be all-white inside, with no visible mold residue.
Once ginseng roots are completely dry and ready for storage, place them into paper bags or boxes. Never store roots in plastic bags or containers because plastic is known to raise humidity levels and can cause roots in storage to develop mold.
Ginseng root can be used to provide an all-natural energy boost, improve cognitive function, slow the affects of aging, increase sexual performance, reduce stress, and more. Growing the root in your garden can be very rewarding and even profitable, as long as you have plenty of patience and a good growing environment. Growing ginseng is a challenge, but one that any gardener can enjoy.