Since fresh ginseng can be hard to come by and expensive, wanting to grow your own ginseng plants is a logical wish. However, it can take up to three or more years before the roots are ready to harvest, so a bit of know-how is needed to reap the benefits of this helpful herb. Keep reading to learn how to plant ginseng seeds and what particular circumstances these helpful roots require.
What Is Ginseng?
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is often compared to ginger, but its complex flavor is a trait of its own. A similarly zingy and spicy root, ginseng is a native North American plant. It is found in the deciduous forests of the eastern North America. Ginseng was one of the first American exported herbs, with much of the crop going to China. During the 1970s, it was over-harvested and is not as prevalent as before. American ginseng is similar to Asian ginseng, a wild crop in northern Manchuria.
About Ginseng Propagation
It’s possible to forage for ginseng seed but be cautious, as many crops are proprietary or under protection. Ginseng is a threatened species in places like Virginia, where it is illegal to harvest wild stands.
The sweet licorice flavor of the herb makes it a popular and expensive commodity. Ginseng is also purported to have various health benefits and is essential for various Asian medicines. It is commonly found dried in health food or supplement stores, but getting hold of fresh roots can be tricky unless you have a good Asian market nearby.
A better way to get ginseng seeds for planting is to order them. Several reputable sites exist online, or specialty nurseries may carry the seed. The plants may also be started from roots, but they’re usually grown from seed. Starting with roots results in a faster plant and earlier harvest, but is more costly than growing from seed.
Ginseng is a shade-loving perennial whose seeds need several specialized conditions before germination is possible. For example, ginseng drops its berries, but they don’t sprout until the following year. The berries don’t sprout because they need to lose their flesh, and the seeds need to experience a period of cold.
The home grower can mimic this stratification process in their garden or greenhouse. Purchased seeds have already had their flesh removed and may already be stratified. It is best to check with the seller to determine if this is the case; otherwise, you must stratify seeds yourself.
How to Grow Ginseng from Seed
There are two main methods to grow ginseng: field-grown and wild-grown. Field-grown ginseng is produced under shade and takes more effort than wild-grown methods. Field-grown plants are also considerably less profitable due to lower quality crops and a need for a significant expenditure to purchase shade covers.
Wild-grown ginseng requires ownership of woodland, where cultivation mimics the natural propagation. It is cautioned to select the site carefully to protect the crop from poachers. You should pick the best method of growth based on the availability of resources, such as space, time, and money, and your purpose (profit vs. personal).
Ginseng Seed Growing Conditions
Ginseng prefers north and east-facing locations on slopes with good drainage. There should be 70-90 percent tree canopy shade for optimal results. The site should be free of competitive understory plants and have generous airflow, which means removing the lower branches of selected plants to encourage air movement. The average annual soil temperature should be 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 C), and receive 40 to 50 inches (101-127 cm.) of rainfall annually.
Stratifying Ginseng Seeds
Stratification is necessary, or the seed may not germinate. If your seed has yet to be stratified, the process is relatively easy but will add to the long germination period, which can take up to 18 months. First, make sure your seed is viable. They should be firm and off-white to tan in color with no odor. Next, soak your unstratified seeds in formaldehyde followed by fungicide. Then bury the seed outside in moist sand, or put it in the refrigerator. The seed must experience cold temperatures for 18 to 22 months before planting in the autumn or early winter. If you receive seed outside of the planting period, store it in the refrigerator until planting time.
How to Plant and Care for Ginseng Seeds
The best time to plant is in the fall to early winter. Wild-grown planting is as simple as scratching up the soil and distributing seeds at a rate of 4-5 seeds per foot (0.3 m) and 1 ½ inches (4 cm) deep. Select a site with no weeds in at least partial shade where the soil drains well. It is a good idea to plant in successive years to allow for the harvest of roots consistently. After sowing the seed, cover it with a layer of leaf litter. Hand weed and mulch around the plants as they sprout. The first-year plants look nothing like mature ginseng, so it is advisable to familiarize yourself with their appearance to avoid weeding out the seedlings.
Ginseng will do well if left alone. You only need to keep weeds away from the bed and ensure the soil is moderately moist. As the plants develop, keep watch for slugs and other pests and fungal issues—thin plants to 2 per square foot (0.09 square m) to prevent overcrowding and ensure good airflow. There are also several recommended pesticides for use. Check with your extension office for fungicide recommendations.
The rest relies upon patience. Ginseng is harvested in the third year after seeding. Dig up roots, wash them, and dry them on racks. Store well-dried ginseng roots in a dry, rodent-proof container.