- Woods-cultivated root. Photo courtesy of Bob Beyfuss.
Ginseng: For many of us, ginseng was one of those newfangled supplements that hit supermarket shelves with the similar intensity of kombucha, chia seeds, acai juice and yerba mate. But where does it come from and how is it grown? Many of the hottest health food items have exotic names, indicating exotic origins and while ginseng certainly does come from eastern Asia, it is also grown right here in the U.S.A.
Ginseng is prized for its root. The Asian variety is said to be more stimulating while the American variety contains more ‘cooling’ properties. Bob Beyfuss, an independent ginseng expert has been working with the medicinal plant for decades and explained its life cycle: “Ginseng plants generally become reproductive when the root attains a certain size. That could be as early as two or three years into the growth cycle. Typically in a forest, it would be 8-10 years into a life cycle. In a field situation, where it’s grown under artificial shade, the plants are almost all reproductive at age two and definitely by age three.” Freshly harvested seeds take nearly 18 months to go through the dormancy process. The immature embryo requires two cold spells in order to ripen, mature and break down various inhibitors. Once the seed ‘cracks,’ it’s ready to be planted in autumn.
You may ask, “Why wouldn’t you plant the seed in the spring, like with most plants?” Ginseng seeds actually need the cold period of winter in order to break their dormancy. Once the ground thaws, it’s ready to sprout its first leaf in the second spring. “If the conditions are right, by the fifth, sixth and seventh year, the plant will finally flower and produce seeds. It does not reproduce particularly well on its own. Ginseng berries that ripen in nature and fall to the ground have about a two or three percent chance of actually growing into plants. If you take the time to pick those berries and very carefully plant them when they’re ripe, you can get that germination rate up to about 85 percent,” says Beyfuss.
Perhaps now we can start to see one of the reasons why this medicinal plant is so valuable – a wild or wild-simulated root takes nearly 5-8 years to develop a root of a decent size, and the seed alone takes a year and a half to mature.
When grown in the forest, ginseng is most vulnerable to deer predation. If you’re thinking about
Sugar Maple Forest
growing ginseng in your back yard, you should first consider the forest type that ginseng needs in order to thrive. While ginseng does not require or even like a nutrient rich soil,
it does benefit from a healthy dose of calcium. Sugar maple forests in the north litter the ground with calcium-rich leaves in the fall, providing the optimum mulch for ginseng. As you move further south, ginseng can be found growing in poplar forests or under black walnut trees. “The acid test for ‘Can I Grow Ginseng on This Site?’ has to do with the herbaceous perennials that are growing on the forest floor,” says Beyfuss. “Even though there may be no ginseng present at all, the presence of plants such as bainberry, maidenhair fern, rattlesnake fern, blue cohash, foam flower and to a certain extent, stinging nettle – these are plants that indicate that the conditions are just right for ginseng. The fact that they’re there, number one, tells you that there’s not too much deer predation, because these are the types of plants that will quickly be wiped out if there’s too much deer.”
So you’ve identified a good site with sugar maple, poplar or walnut trees and the herbaceous understory is looking intact with some of the indicator plants nearby… Now you have to prepare the site. Some of the understory layer should be cleared away to make sure that the ginseng isn’t competing for sunlight. You could even take down some of the smaller trees (if they’re hardwoods, refer to our blog post on shiitake mushrooms to see how to cultivate mushrooms on the logs). Once some of the understory has been cleared, rake the leaves away from the plot, remove any large rocks and rake through the soil to aerate it. Uniformly broadcast the ginseng seeds by hand and simply walk over the seeds to ensure that they make contact with the soil. Rake the leaves back on top of the plot and sprinkle a bit of rodent repellant over the area to keep the voles at bay. Then you wait…and wait…for years…until it’s time to harvest the golden roots from the ground. For more information of forest farming, check out our YouTube site for detailed ‘How To’ videos on growing non-timber forest products or visit our website.