Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

American ginseng has three or four compound leaves, each with five leaflets. © Robert H. Read

American ginseng has three or four compound leaves, each with five leaflets.
© Robert H. Read

June 2009

Hunting a woodland curative

Ginseng's green leaves and shiny berries light up the shady forest floor.

Daniel J. Dictus

Perhaps youíve seen herbaceous plants with small clusters of bright red berries on your walks or scouting trips through a shady woodland and wondered what they were. It might be bunchberry, Jack-in-the-pulpit, or red baneberry, or you might just have stumbled upon wild ginseng, an uncommon perennial herb that grows in hardwood forests, primarily in the eastern United States. At maturity, ginseng only reaches a height of 12-24 inches and contains three leaves each with five leaflets. Hence the Latin name, Panax quinquefolius. Mature plants bear a cluster of small flowers on a separate stalk in July into August that may develop into small, shiny red berries in fall.

The curious-looking gnarled root is the object of every wild ginseng hunterís search: the root purportedly packs a wallop when it comes to curbing illnesses and increasing strength and vigor. Its medicinal uses include formulations that are marketed for improving eyesight, prolonging life, improving brain function, promoting fertility, curing impotency, lowering blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and reducing stress. Among the many ways to ingest the herb are eating raw roots, in teas, in tinctures where finely grated roots are covered with alcohol and water, in powders, pills, extracts, capsules, tablets, toothpaste, soft drinks, candy, chewing gum and even in cigarettes!

To grow successfully, ginseng plants require 70-90 percent shade with 35-50 inches of annual precipitation in a loamy, well-drained soil. Though wild ginseng grows from Canada south to Florida and from Maine west to Oklahoma, it is a rare find and the ginseng trade is strictly regulated under an international treaty, federal import/export laws, state harvest restrictions, and certification and licensing requirements. Ginseng is also commercially grown and, given our ideal growing conditions in Wisconsin, more than 90 percent of the American-grown ginseng is raised in Wisconsin by fewer than 180 registered growers. This cultivated ginseng is grown in raised beds in fields with special shading, primarily in Marathon County. If it is planted in beds in the woods here trees provide a natural canopy of shade, it is referred to as "woods-grown" ginseng. The bulk of the exports are sold to Asian markets, particularly in China, Taiwan and Korea.

Wisconsin permits the harvest of wild ginseng under strict rules designed to preserve this slow-growing, long-lived plant. Wild ginseng doesnít mature quickly and only produces a few seeds a year once it reaches four to five years old. The unharvested plants frequently live 30 years or more, and the roots grow exceedingly slowly. Other woodland threats also take a toll on ginseng. It is eaten by deer, wild turkeys and rodents that feed on the plants, fruits and seeds. The plant is susceptible to both dry and wet growing conditions. Invasive species like garlic mustard, buckthorn and honeysuckle can also shade out young ginseng. Fragmentation Continued from page 2 of forests by houses, roads and other developments leaves less quality forest habitat for ginseng.

"To sustain wild ginsengís long-term survival, itís critical that plants be harvested only after they have matured and had the opportunity to set seed for several years," says Kelly Kearns, who directs DNRís Plant Conservation Program for the Bureau of Endangered Resources. "They may only be harvested by licensed harvesters, during the fall harvest season, and only if the plants have at least three leaves and a flowering stalk. Harvesters need to plant any seeds found on the plants to ensure more ginseng can grow in the future."

In Wisconsin, wild ginseng harvest is prohibited on all federal lands, state lands and most public lands. You must have permission to dig ginseng from private lands. Unless you are collecting on land that you own, all harvesters need a license and roots can only be sold to licensed wild Wisconsin Ginseng Dealers. Wild ginseng can only be harvested from September 1-November 1. Regulations, harvesting rules and tips to sustain ginseng are available from DNR stations and two fine brochures can be downloaded: Wild Ginseng: Regulations and Guidelines for Sustainable Harvest and Good Stewardship Harvesting of Wild American Ginseng in Wisconsin.

For those who would just enjoy seeing this plant, keep your eyes peeled for the compound leaved plant with a small cluster of white flowers that later glows with bright, shiny berries.

Daniel J. Dictus writes from Combined Locks.