Pictured is a ginseng root with ripe berries
By Scott Harris, Ginseng producer
Cooperstown - Can you name an agricultural product that has been exported from North America for nearly 300 years?
A crop that can bring up to $90,000 per acre if grown properly on land generally regarded as unusable?
A current supply that cannot meet the ever increasing demands, with over 1 billion customers eagerly awaiting the arrival of the next shipment?
The answer is American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolium), a low growing native perennial plant indigenous to the Eastern United States and Southern Canada.
After reading a report about ginseng use in China, Father Joseph Francis Lafitau, working near Montreal, Canada set out to find the elusive plant. The description of the plant and its growing habits led Father Lafitau to believe that it might be found in North America.
He employed the knowledge of the Iroquois to assist in his search. Soon after, in the year 1716, Lafitau succeeded in his goal and found ginseng.
Upon inspection and approval of the root by the Chinese, coupled with dwindling supplies in China, trade soon began and provided many early settlers with good fortune.
In their haste to cash in on this newly found commerce, the plant was over harvested and soon became rare. The prices skyrocketed and root quality suffered, becoming unacceptable to the Chinese.
With the demise of the Canadian market, attention turned to the colonies to supply the Far East with their cherished herb.
The colonies gladly accepted and exports began. On Feb.22, 1784, the Empress of China left New York Harbor bound for China with a large shipment of ginseng and furs. Philadelphia soon became the primary port of export for ginseng roots to the Orient.
In 1788, Kentucky pioneer Daniel Boone hired the Native Americans to assist him in the harvesting of wild ginseng. It has been reported that his barge, filled with nearly 12 tons of ginseng, overturned on the Ohio River and all was lost. He repeated the trip the following year and successfully reached Philadelphia with a load equivalent to the first.
The ginseng trade continued to flourish until the middle to late 1800's. Records indicate that in 1862, ginseng exports exceeded 300 tons. Once again the root was becoming scarce and government attempts at controlling over-harvesting were futile.
The declining wild populations could no longer satisfy the increasing demands. This encouraged the American farmer to explore the possibility of cultivating ginseng. The first attempts at cultivation were met with failure.
In 1895, George Stanton, a tin smith turned farmer from central New York boasted that he had been successful in the cultivation of ginseng on a large scale. His method of replicating the natural environment that ginseng thrived in was soon adopted by other growers.
Although cultivated ginseng has been the main source of supply of recent years, the wild has always brought premium prices.
For over 4000 years the Oriental people have felt that the older gnarled roots contain more medical properties than the smooth, large cultivated ones. Another explanation for the high value of wild ginseng would be the absence of chemical residues often found in the cultivated root.
Due to the scarcity of true "wild ginseng", many growers are now shifting to what is called the wild simulated method of raising their crops.
The roots of wild simulated ginseng are indistinguishable from the wild. It is believed that the taking of wild ginseng from its natural environment will be banned within 5 years in efforts to save the natural patches.
The desire for the wild looking older root will remain, and the wild simulated root will be called upon to fill the void in the absence of the wild supplies.
Prices for dried wild root are generally in the $300.00 per pound range, with reports as high as $550.00 for premium old ginseng root. As one can easily see by the above figures, growing ginseng can be very profitable if grown correctly.
One can also be assured that growing ginseng is not a 'get rich quick scheme,' as each plant takes 8-10 years to reach its full potential.
The longer producers allow the plant to grow, the more valuable it will be. Wild roots can reach an age of well over 100 years and are very valuable. Age is determined by counting the scars on the rhizome (neck) displaying evidence of the previous years growth.
The earliest that ginseng should be harvested is 5-6 years.
During the growing period, seeds can either be sold or replanted and the leaves can be sold for teas.
Younger roots can be sold to other growers wishing to start their own ginseng gardens. With special care, ginseng can make an interesting and beautiful houseplants as well.
Being there is such a demand for ginseng, the growers can be assured that the market will continue to exist, as it has for nearly 300 years.
Ginseng thrives naturally on North to Northeast gentle slopes under a 70 to 80 percent shade cover provided by the many hardwood forests found in our area.
Moist, loamy, well drained soils high in organic matter with a moderately acidic ph level of 4.5 to 5.5 and high calcium content have been proven to produce the best ginseng.
Soil test results taken from under Sugar Maple trees generally fall into this category. Indicator plants include ferns, trilliums, Jack-in-the-Pulpit & Blue Cohosh to name a few.
Once established ginseng is a relatively low maintenance crop. As a matter of fact, the less you do for the plant, the better quality root you will produce.
Starting with high quality planting stock will cost more initially, but will pay off in the long run.
The seed requires an 18-month germination period, so be sure to buy "stratified" seed.
Stratified seed has been allowed to germinate for one year prior the grower receiving them for the recommended fall planting. The seedlings will emerge the following spring. The best time to plant seed or roots is before the ground freezes in mid to late fall.
Before harvesting wild ginseng for transplanting, check with your state agencies for a list of regulations pertaining to wild harvest. It is against the law to dig any ginseng plant out of season or those containing unripe berries. The ripe crimson red berries will contain 1-3 seeds that should be re-planted within 50 feet of the bearing plant.
On May 1, 1998 an organization was formed by a group of ginseng growers, dealers, researchers and those interested in the preservation of this fascinating native plant.
is open for membership at this time. Present members gladly welcome out of state members at the associate level.
All members will have access to current research results by the quarterly newsletter.
Membership will also include discounts on ginseng products seeds, roots, books and more from other members.
For information about the ESGGA or if you want to start growing ginseng in your woodlands please contact
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