Wild-Simulated Forest Farming for Ginseng Production
By Andy Hankins, Virginia State University
American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is a familiar plant to many people in the Appalachian region. For several generations "digging sang" has been an enjoyable and profitable activity for many mountain people. In 1995, wild dried roots of ginseng sold for as much as $470 per pound. That price has tripled in the last ten years. In 1995, quite a few pounds of cultivated dried ginseng roots sold for $20 per pound. That price has been reduced by half in the last ten years.
Why should there be such a difference in the prices paid for wild and cultivated ginseng? Nearly all of the ginseng, grown or gathered from the wild in the United States, is exported to oriental countries for sale. Ginseng growers and gatherers in the US. and Canada produced about four million pounds of ginseng for export to the Orient in 1994. Apparently the Chinese people prefer wild ginseng over cultivated because it more closely resembles the revered wild Oriental Ginseng (Panax ginseng). The Chinese believe that the slower-growing wild roots, which are harvested at an older age, absorb more curative power from the forest floor.
Anyone who knows ginseng can easily tell the difference between wild and cultivated roots. The wild roots are dark tan in color, gnarled in appearance and show many concentric growth rings. Wild roots are generally small in size and light in weight. The cultivated roots are cream colored, smooth and fat, and exhibit few concentric growth rings. Cultivated roots are often large and heavy. The Oriental buyers have quite an elaborate grading system for the dried roots they purchase.
Approximately 3,800 acres of ginseng are grown in intense cultivation under artificial shade in Wisconsin. Under intense cultivation the roots grow quickly to a harvestable size. Four year old roots are very commonly harvested. Yields as high as 2,500 pounds of dried root per acre have been reported. Establishment costs for one acre of ginseng beds, under wood lath shade or under polypropylene shade cloth, varies from $20,000 to $30,000 depending upon the current prices of materials needed.
The greatest problem associated with intensely cultivated ginseng is disease, including alternaria blight, damping off and phytophthora. Any disease outbreaks severely threaten ginseng under intense cultivation because the plants are so close together that the disease can spread quickly through the entire bed. This intense fungus disease pressure forces artificial shade growers to use a vigorous fungicide spray schedule to prevent losses.
A method called wild-simulated cultivation can be used to grow ginseng without fungicide sprays and expensive establishment costs. The prices paid for ginseng grown under wild-simulated cultivation are normally the same as prices paid for wild ginseng roots. While ginseng growing is very risky, wild-simulated ginseng cultivation can potentially provide supplemental income for persons who have patience, perseverance and discretion.
To grow wild-simulated ginseng, the first step is site selection. The most favorable temperature and soil moisture conditions generally are associated with north or east facing slopes with at least a 75 per cent shade canopy. The best shade is provided by deep rooted, deciduous trees such as poplars and oaks. Ginseng grows best in a moist, well drained soil.
Successful growth of ginseng most often occurs in sites where herbaceous woodland plants such as Jack-in the-pulpit, bloodroot, Solomon's seal and ferns are growing. If no herbaceous plants are growing on the forest door, ginseng will probably not grow there. Excellent soil drainage is essential.
In the wild-simulated method, stratified ginseng seed is planted in the fall when the trees lose their leaves. In some locations, clearing of undergrowth will be necessary. If the site is sufficiently shaded, there should not be a great deal of competitive weed growth. This is an extensive (as opposed to intensive) planting method. If dense patches of weeds exist on the site, simply avoid them and plant in other areas. It is desirable to disturb the site as little as possible to reduce the spread of fungus diseases.
The only tools needed to plant wild-simulated ginseng are a rake and a garden hoe. It is a good idea to plant seeds in defined beds that are 5 feet wide and 50 feet long. The beds should be separated by three foot wide walkways. The beds should run up and down the slope rather than across the slope for better air drainage around the plants. Rake the leaves on the forest floor away from the bed right down to the topsoil. Using the hoe, make three narrow furrows 13 inches apart, all the way down the length of the bed.
Plant ginseng seeds, by hand, three inches apart in each furrow About one ounce or 500 seeds will be needed to plant three furrows at this spacing in a bed that is 5 feet wide and 50 feet long . Cover the seeds with 3/4 inch of soil. After planting, carefully step down each row to firm the soil around the seeds. To finish the planting, rake one inch of leaves back over the bed as a mulch. After a couple of rain storms, no one will be able to detect that any planting has occurred. The site will look completely natural.
The stratified seed will germinate the next spring. The plants will look like three small strawberry leaves on a stem about one inch tall. Some of the ginseng seeds will not germinate and some will be eaten by rodents. Over the next seven years, the plant population in each bed will be reduced every year by various natural forces. The final stand will be a thin, healthy population of wild ginseng plants.
In the wild-simulated method, after planting, no more work is required until the ginseng roots are dug six to ten years later. The ginseng plants are left to the vagaries of nature. Weeds on the forest door will compete with the plants for water and nutrients. Insects and rodents will attack certain plants. Fungus diseases infect ginseng plants from time to time. Severe weather may reduce plant growth. All of these stressful conditions result in a wild appearance of the roots that are eventually harvested. Digging the roots will be difficult work because they often become entwined with the roots of other woodland plants. The harvested roots should be air-dried in the shade.
The investment in a half acre of wild-simulated ginseng is $800.00 for 10 pounds of stratified seeds and 20 days of labor. A half acre will produce anywhere from 0 to 200 pounds of dried roots in six to ten years. The natural fertility of the particular planting site will determine both the quantity and the quality of the ginseng that can be grown there.
The greatest threat to the crop is theft. Ginseng should not be planted in areas where people go to dig wild ginseng. In some regions, ginseng hunters comb the mountains every fall looking for wild ginseng. These hunters will certainly be excited if they come across a dense population of plants. Somehow cultivated ginseng plants are often considered "fair game" by wild gatherers. Fines for stealing ginseng are negligible. The wild-simulated method of growing ginseng is best practiced on lands where access is controlled. It is highly recommended that anyone attempting to grow ginseng this way, keep quiet about the enterprise.
Ideal growing conditions for ginseng are more difficult to find in low-lying regions than they are in the mountains. The forest floor in most woodland areas is too hot and dry during the summer for ginseng to survive. Micro-environments may be found, however, that are good, if not perfect, places for ginseng to grow. Small pockets of cooler soil may be found very often on a north-facing hillside above a stream or river. Many Virginia landowners are successfully growing ginseng well out of the mountains.
For several decades, natives of the Southern Appalachianregion have harvested natural plant materials from the wild for sale to the many medicinal herb buyers in the region. Very often these buyers operate small grocery stores. There is at least one buyer in every town in southwest Virginia. Products most commonly traded are ginseng, black cohosh, bloodroot, golden seal, lady slipper, mayapple and slippery elm.
The local person, who buys the roots, bark, leaves or seeds from medicinal plants, often also buys furs and hides. These small buyers, in turn, sell the plant materials they purchase to regional brokers who either export the materials to the Orient or sell them directly to pharmaceutical companies in the United States.
As native wild populations of these medicinal plants disappear due to over harvesting, potential increases for profitable sale of cultivated woodland medicinal plants. Indeed, many small landowners throughout the region have already successfully grown and sold these plants. There is never any problem marketing the products they grow. Prices fluctuate, of course, but the market channels developed years ago for sale of wild harvested plant materials can reliably be used for sale of any cultivated medicinal herbs in current demand.
(This excerpt from a paper entitled "Wild-Simulated Ginseng Cultivation" appeared originally in the Temperate Agroforester, January 1997. Andy Hankins is Extension Specialist in Alternative Agriculture; Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia State University, P.O. Box 9081, Petersburg, VA 23806.)