Oriental cultures have used ginseng for over 5,000 years and view it is a “cure-all”. The plant is said to have a “strength-giving and rejuvenating effect” on the human body. According to Earl Mindell’s Vitamin Bible “…its reputed benefits include cures for impotence, high and low blood pressure, anemia, arthritis, indigestion, insomnia, fatigue, hypoglycemia, and poor circulation.”
Ginseng use in Ontario and Quebec dates back centuries. Ginseng root has been used as a traditional Native medicine, and there are some references noting Jesuit priests were exporting ginseng to Hong Kong as early as 1715. At one time, it is said that the trade of ginseng closely rivaled that of the fur trade.
Today, with the growing trend towards the use of herbal medicines, we see ginseng being used as a daily health supplement, in herbal teas and even in sports drinks. Because of the demand, modern agriculture practices have turned the production of this plant into a viable cash crop.
In recent years, the agriculture community in southwestern Ontario has begun to cultivate crops of ginseng. Currently there are approximately 300 producers with over 1,600 hectares in production. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs report for the year 2000 the following statistics average selling price $31.46/kilogram, over 770 million kilograms exported, and a total crop valued at $24.8 million dollars.
Status of Wild Ginseng
With the continued fragmentation of woodlots in southern Ontario and the pressure to harvest the plant, natural populations of wild ginseng have declined significantly over the past 10 to15 years.
Although there are no regulations in Ontario prohibiting the harvesting of ginseng, you should be aware that as of May 2000, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), lists ginseng as an endangered species. COSEWIC defines endangered species as those facing imminent extirpation or extinction. There are restrictions on exporting wild and cultivated field ginseng root out of Canada. Under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), a permit is required for the exportation of ginseng.
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American ginseng (Panax quinqueefolium, Araliaceae family) is a slow-growing perennial plant that emerges in early May and takes seven to eight years to grow to maturity in a woodland habitat. It grows naturally in the eastern provinces of Canada, including southwestern and eastern Ontario.
When mature, these plants are 40 to 60 centimetres tall, have three long-stalked leaves that feature three to seven leaflets (usually five) tapered to a point, toothed, with a palmate leaf stem one to12 centimetres in length. The flower heads develop on a single stalk, are greenish white in colour, and flowering occurs in early to mid-summer. The green berries ripen to a bright red colour in the fall, and each berry contains two small seeds. The root is narrow on both ends and swollen in the middle.
Production of Wild-Simulated Ginseng
The cultivation of wild-simulated ginseng occurs when plants are grown in a basically undisturbed forest, with no tillage of the soil. Provided you have the right site, access to quality seed and a few garden tools such as a hoe and a rake, you can try your hand at growing ginseng.
The following information will provide you with some of the basic information on how to grow ginseng in your woodlot. For more detailed information, you may want to obtain copies of the reference materials listed in the section “Recommended Reading.”
1. Site Selection
Selecting the right site is important. The most favourable conditions will be found in dense, tall, mature hardwood forests that contain deep-rooted tree species such as sugar maple, butternut, and beech. These types of mature, tolerant hardwood forests have a high canopy, which provides optimal shade and air circulation. In addition, deep-rooted tree species will not be in competition for surface moisture and nutrients that are essential in the growing of ginseng.
The best sites have humus-rich, sandy loam soil, a pH between 5.5 and 6.5, are moist but well drained, and have little undergrowth in the understory. Temperature and moisture conditions associated with north- or east-facing slopes (minimum of two percent slope to ensure good drainage) having at least 75 percent shade canopy, are the best suited to growing ginseng. It is recommended to select the site in the summer when the trees are in full leaf to ensure you have the required amount of shade.
The presence of ginseng-associated herbaceous woodland plants or indicator species Jack-in-the pulpit, maidenhair fern, jewel weed, Solomon’s seal, or bloodroot can also be used to identify a quality site.
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2. Site Preparation and Seeding
For low-intensity plantings, it is recommended to lay out planting beds. Defining your planting area will assist in tending and monitoring your crop over the next five to seven years.
First, lay out the beds so they run up and down the slope, rather than across the slope. This will provide better drainage. Each bed should be about 1.5 to 2.0 metres wide (length optional) leaving a 0.5 to 1.0 metre walkway between each bed. Second, using a regular garden hoe, lightly scrape away the leaf litter down to the mineral soil. In each bed, make six to eight shallow rows approximately 2.5 centimetres deep and about 15 to 23 centimetres apart. Place seed 15 to 23 centimetres apart in each of the rows. Third, cover the seed with 2.5 centimetres of topsoil and carefully step down on each furrow to firm the soil around the seed. Then rake 2.5 centimetres of leaf litter over the bed to serve as mulch. A high seeding rate is required because over the next five to seven years, natural mortality will reduce the number of plants.
When ginseng seed is first picked, it is immature and it must be stratified in order for it to germinate. Stratification is the process where “green” seed undergoes a treatment before germination to break dormancy in seeds. It is accomplished by exposing imbibed seed to a series of cold and warm temperatures over an extended period of time. The stratification period for ginseng is 16 to 22 months.
Woodlot owners have two seeding options for planting. Nonstratified or “green” seed can be planted in the soil immediately after the berries ripen (turn red), but before they germinate. Over the next one-and-a-half years, the seed will stratify naturally and emerge in the second spring after planting. Or, you can plant stratified seed that will emerge the following spring.
It should be noted that you can achieve a higher germination rate if you plant stratified seed. The better results are due to the fact that stratified seed germinates quicker and is in the ground for a shorter period of time. Thus the losses from rodents and insects are greatly reduced.
Seeding should be done in the fall after leaf fall and prior to the ground freezing. Planting too early will result in excessive leaf litter covering the site and will reduce survival because young germinates will find it difficult to grow through several layers of leaf litter.
3. Seed Source
Reliable seed sources in Ontario are limited. A woodlot owner may want to contact the Ginseng Growers Association of Canada and advertise their needs with this group. This group was organized for the agricultural sector for the growing of ginseng and may have seed available. They can be contacted by calling (519) 426-7046.
Or, a preferred source would be a wood-growing producer. There are a few such growers in southwestern Ontario, such as Pajor’s Wood Grown Ginseng, located in Waterford, Ontario. They sell both green and stratified seed. They can be contacted by calling (519) 443-5696 or visit their Web site at <www.woodsgrown-ginseng.com/>.
4. Root Harvesting and Drying
Harvesting of the root should only be undertaken after the berries have ripened (i.e. turned red). Harvesting any sooner then this will reduce the weight of the root and affect the germination viability of the seed.
When digging up the root, extreme care must be taken to ensure the rhizomes (the small feeder roots) are not damaged. Roots should be carefully cleaned with clean running water and do not scrub, skin or attempt to remove natural soils stains from the root. Damaged roots will be devalued.
Roots should be air-dried, and this can be best accomplished by exposing the roots to dry, warm, moving air. One method you may consider using is to place the roots in a single layer on a screen-bottomed tray, with a small fan providing the needed air circulation. Drying temperatures should not exceed 30° C, otherwise the root will dry too quickly, darken and will be reduced in value. Under optimal conditions, it will take three to four weeks for the roots to dry.
Dried roots should never be placed in airtight containers this may cause mould or mildew to develop on the roots. Cardboard boxes serve as good storage containers. Roots should be stored in a cool environment that is free from rodents and insects.
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There are a number of sources where you can obtain information on the growing of ginseng. Unfortunately, most of the published literature deals mainly with the field cultivation of the plant, and there is limited information available on the growing of wild- simulated or forest grown ginseng. Here are three sources you may want to consider exploring:
The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs has a series of extension notes on field cultivation of ginseng called Ginseng Production in Ontario. To access this information, you can call your local OMFRA office, or visit their Web site at http://www.gov.on.ca/OMAFRA/english/crops/hort/ginseng.html.
North Carolina State Cooperative Extension Service has a guide Ginseng A Product Guide for North Carolina that can be downloaded from the Internet at <www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/spcrop-index.html>.
Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture and Fisheries has an extension note Ginseng Cultivation in the Woods that is available on the Internet by visiting the Web site http://www.gov.ns.ca/nsaf/elibrary/archive/hort/vegetables/pihve94-04.htm.
This article appeared in the Summer/Fall 2002 (Volume 27) edition of the S&W Report the newsletter of the Ontario Woodlot Association.