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Plant of the Week: Ginseng

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

Plant of the Week

Latin: Panax quinquefolius

Picture of ginseng
Ginseng, a small and inconspicuous woodland herb, nets about half a million dollars per year for Arkansas woodsmen.

Enormous flocks of passenger pigeons once darkened our skies, but they were completely destroyed by overzealous market hunters during the 19th Century. 

The buffalo almost met the same fate, whose destruction was spurred on by misguided actions promoted by our own federal government. 

These and other near misses led to the widespread adoption of hunting seasons and bag limits for animals during the early years of the 20th century.  All of these were limited to animals, save one - the harvest restrictions on wild ginseng collecting. 

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, is a native woodland herb belonging to the aralia family found in cool, moist woodlands throughout the eastern deciduous forest.  In Arkansas, it occurs in the Ozarks, along Crowley’s Ridge and in the Ouachitas, where it’s less common. 

Ginseng grows from a slow growing taproot with a growing point at its apex.  This growing point is pulled below ground as the plant grows.  Each spring, it sends up a short stalk bearing from one to four compound leaves.   Plants older than three or four years will have two sets of leaves and be old enough to flower and set seed.   Plants can reach up to 2 feet tall, but are usually half that.

Leaves are palmately compound with the two lower leaflets about half the size of the other three.  Inconspicuous, bisexual flowers appear in midsummer and are followed by fall ripening bright red, peanut sized berries.

Legislation establishing a season on wild-harvested ginseng was enacted in 1985.  It established a collection season of Sept. 1 through Dec. 1 and requires plants have at least three compound leaves (called three-pronged by "sang" hunters) before they can be dug.  The law further stipulated seed must be planted back in the site where the roots were harvested.  Collection is prohibited from state and national forests and all parkland. 

Ginseng has long been valued in China and is the most important of all the medicinal herbs.  The Latin name comes from a Greek word meaning "all-healing," the same root word for "panacea."  Wild stands of Chinese ginseng were long ago exterminated by overcollecting, so North America has served as a substitute supply since the early 1700s.  John Bartram, when he made his first botanical collecting trips into the Appalachians in the 1740s, kept a lookout for ginseng plants. 

Wild collected and "wild-simulated" (plants grown from plants seeded into a suitable woodland site) roots command a higher price than cultivated plants, which reportedly make up about 99 percent of our annual ginseng export.   But cultivated roots only sell for about $15 per pound of dry roots whereas wild collected roots average around $300.

With this wide differential in price, regulation is necessary.  Paul Shell, who heads up the plant inspection section of the Arkansas State Plant Board, says there are "seven or eight licensed ginseng dealers in the state and that, depending on the weather, harvests usually fall between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds per year." 

Ginseng is occasionally seen in gardens as a curiosity.  Only one ginseng farmer operates in the Ozarks; most commercial ginseng farms are in Wisconsin and other northern states.  Farmers there often harvest 10 to 20 acres a year from three-year-old plantings.  Yields can range from 700 to 3,000 pounds per acre. 

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - November 3, 2006


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.