The ginseng that is grown in B.C. is Panax quinquefolius, a species that is native to the hardwood forests of eastern North America. Its native range is from southern Quebec to northern Georgia, mainly in the Appalachian mountain range. The plant is adapted to growing in the low light, moist environment of the forest understory. On the farm, this environment is simulated with the use of shadecloth that blocks the majority of incoming sunlight. Straw mulch serves the same purpose as the leaf litter in the forest, protecting the roots from rapid temperature changes, maintaining soil moisture and limiting the growth of weeds. Many people are more familiar with the Asian species of ginseng, often called Chinese or Korean ginseng. Its scientific name is Panax ginseng, a closely related plant that is very similar in appearance to North American ginseng. So-called Siberian ginseng is a distantly related plant that is not in the same genus as the true ginsengs. Its scientific name is Eleutherococcus senticosus.
North American Ginseng: Panax quinquefolius Ginseng is a herbaceous perennial that belongs to the plant family Araliaceae. The best-known member of this family is English ivy. Ginseng is started from seed. The seeds are a half-moon shape and about the size of a split pea. The seeds are planted in the summer or fall when they are still immature. After planting, the warm soil assists the maturation process, which is completed by the arrival of cold temperatures in winter. The next spring, the seed is ready to germinate, sending a small shoot upwards through the soil and mulch. When it reaches daylight, the shoot unfolds and expands, producing 3 saw tooth-edged leaves that attach to a single point at the top of the stem. After the shoot has grown to its full height of about 4” above the mulch, no further shoot or leaf growth happens that first growing season.
All of the plant’s resources are used to grow the root and to produce a bud on the top of the root that contains the shoot for the next growing season. This continues until the fall, when frost kills the shoot, leaving the small root protected under the straw and soil through the winter. The next spring, warming soil temperatures tell the root that it is time to send the shoot upwards out of the bud, starting the growth cycle over again. This time, the shoot unfolds to reveal 2 large leaf stalks, called “prongs”, attached to the stem, each tipped with 3 to 5 leaflets. A full-grown 2-year-old shoot is about 6 - 8” tall. As long as the root remains healthy, this life cycle is repeated over and over. In the wild, ginseng roots have been found that are believed to be over 50 years old. The age of roots can be approximated because each stem that detaches from the top of the root in the fall leaves behind a bit of scar tissue that can be counted, similar to the growth rings of a tree. Three-year-old plants usually have 3 prongs and four-year-old plants have 4. After 4 years of age, a ginseng plant is basically full-grown and will continue to send up similar looking shoots each year that average about 20” in height. Three year old and older plants produce seed-containing berries. These berries turn a bright red when ripe and are then picked to get the seed for another planting. Most ginseng in B.C. is harvested at the end of the 4th growing season when the roots are a size and shape that are well-received in the market.
The life cycle and growth pattern described above applies to farm-grown, cultivated ginseng plants. In a ginseng garden, everything the plant needs to grow is optimized. This includes the amount of sunlight, moisture, soil fertility and freedom from competing weeds. In the wild, some of these factors are often limiting, leading to reduced growth. It may take a wild, forest-grown plant more than 10 years to produce a root the size of a garden-grown 4-year-old. This is not to say that garden-grown ginseng is fast growing. Because it lives in partial shade its whole life, ginseng grows slowly, producing a root the size of an average-sized carrot after 4 years of growth. The root is a creamy white colour, wrinkled and gnarly. Most ginseng is dried after it is harvested and the drying process changes the colour to a golden brown. The typical shape is a short, thick main taproot that has numerous legs or side branches coming off of it, with fine root hairs or fibres attached to them. The taste of ginseng root is mainly bitter, with sweet and earthy aftertastes. The bitterness can make the taste unpleasant to the uninitiated. For those who want the benefits of ginseng without the taste, it can be taken in the form of capsules, or as tea, where its flavour can be moderated with other herbs or teas.