How to find and harvest wild American ginseng

American ginseng
American Ginseng by Pittillo Dan J, USFWS (Own work) [Public Domain CCO (], via Pixnio.

Ginseng root has been sought after and used for its medicinal properties for thousands of years. Ginseng has been touted for its antioxidant properties, as well as, its potential to benefit brain function, boost immunity, increase energy levels and lower blood sugar. It has also been studied as a way to improve mood; boost endurance and treat cancer, heart disease, fatigue, erectile dysfunction, hepatitis C, symptoms from menopause and other conditions. Many of these studies have produced promising results, but the evidence is considered inconclusive.

American Ginseng

American ginseng is found throughout deciduous forests in eastern and central United States and in southeastern Canada. It is a slow-growing perennial that typically grows 8 to 15 inches tall. It grows predominantly in woodland, favoring slopes with rich soil and dense shade.

American ginseng seedlings typically begin to appear in May. They begin to produce small clusters of white flowers that will develop into green fruits from June to July. The green fruits ripen into bright red berries and drop in August and September.

Harvest season for ginseng root is allowed in Ohio from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31.

Ohio Ginseng Harvest Regulations

If you’re planning on harvesting ginseng, make sure you’re aware of your state’s regulations, as well as, federal regulations. Below Ohio’s regulations are outlined.

  • Digging ginseng is not permitted on state and federal property.
  • A permit is not required to harvest ginseng on private property from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31; however, a forager must have written permission from the landowner to hunt and harvest there.
  • Plants must reach a certain level of maturity before being harvested, having at least three leaves.
  • Foragers must keep accurate records that include county and collection date.
  • Foragers must plant the seeds from the plants they’ve collected where they found them immediately after collecting them.
  • A Ginseng Dealer Permit from the Division of Wildlife is required to buy ginseng for resale or export.
  • All ginseng must be certified by the Division of Wildlife before it is exported from Ohio. Certification documents must be kept with each lot of ginseng leaving the state.

Determining the Age of Ginseng Plants

Foragers can determine the age of ginseng plants in one of two ways.

Method 1 – count the number of leaves on the plant. Ginseng plants typically have one to four compound leaves. Each leaf is comprised of three to five leaflets. All states with approved wild ginseng harvest programs prohibit the harvest of plants that have fewer than three leaves. Plants with three leaves are at least five years old.

Method 2 – count the number of stem scars on the rhizome or root neck of the plant. At the beginning of each growing season,  ginseng grows a main stem off its rhizome sitting atop the plant’s main root. When the stem wilts and falls off at the end of the growing season it leaves a scar on the rhizome. By counting the number of scars the age of the plant can be determined. A ginseng plant that is five years old will have four scars.

Harvesting Ginseng

Once you’ve found ginseng plants that are mature enough to harvest, you can use the following steps to harvest it.

Digging ginseng

  1. Start by removing soil in a 5-inch radius around the plant.
  2. Pull the entire root and dirt clod from the ground to loosen the dirt around the root.
  3. Carefully, remove loose soil and take care not to break off parts of the root.
  4. Replant the ripened berries where you dug up the root.
  5. Record the date and location of your collection.

Washing ginseng

Foragers should wash roots as soon after harvesting, taking care not to damage their fragile “skin.” One method is to fill a 5-gallon bucket with water and wash the roots by hand gently rubbing them or scrubbing them with a soft brush to remove loose soil. A little dirt left behind in the grooves of the root is preferable to a completely clean root, especially if it has been damaged.

Drying ginseng

After roots have been cleaned they’ll need to be dried. First, they will need to air dry on screens out of direct sunlight for a couple of hours. Then they will need to be moved to a climate-controlled environment where they can dry on racks for up to two weeks. Racks with screens for the roots to dry on are preferred to maximize air circulation around them. The roots should be spread out on the racks, so they are not in contact with each other. A temperature of between 70-100 F should be maintained during the drying process and they should be rotated occasionally to ensure the roots are drying evenly. Make sure to regularly inspect the roots throughout the drying process to inspect for mold or discoloration, and adjust temperature, humidity and airflow accordingly.

If you’ve dried your ginseng correctly, the insides will be white. You can check by breaking a few. A brown ring inside a root indicates the root dried too quickly. Moldy sections inside a root indicate it dried too slowly.



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