U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmer’s Bulletin No. 1184 Issued 1921, Revised 1941
Ginseng is a native product of recognized importance. The export trade in dry roots has existed for more than a century and for the last 10 years has attained an average value of about $1,000,000.
The natural production of ginseng, diminished by overcollection and the contradiction of suitable forest areas, has dwindled to such an extent that prices have risen to levels warranting cultivation, which has proved successful in judicious hands. The plant, however, has little domestic value except for the exploitation of amateur cultivators and depends on a distant oriental market (China) for its standing as a commodity. As a commercial product it would appear particularly liable to overproduction, which danger, however, is greatly lessened by the slow development of the plant and the inherent difficulties of its cultivation.
Under the present conditions of production ginseng offers attractive possibilities to patient cultivators who appreciate the limitations of growth and the slow development of woodland plants in general and are willing to make a material outlay with only scanty returns in view for several years to come, but it holds out no inducement for inexperienced growers looking for quick profits from a small investment.
The culture of ginseng and of special crops generally is best begun in an inexpensive and experimental manner, enlarging the equipment only as reasonable success seems assured. “Plunging” in ginseng is likely to prove disastrous as in other forms of business.
Ginseng is adapted best to the Northeastern, North Central, and North Pacific Coast States and can also be grown successfully in the Appalachian Mountain region. Its culture is not recommended for the South, the Great Plains, or the Southwest.
THE GINSENG PLANT
American ginseng (fig. 1), botanically known as Panaz quinque-folium L. of the family Araliaceae, is a fleshy rooted herbaceous plant; growing naturally on the slopes of ravines and in other shady but well-drained situations in hardwood forests, in varying abundance from Maine to Minnesota and southward in the mountain regions to the Carolinas and Georgia. In its wild state it grows from 8 to 20 inches high, bearing 3 or more compound leaves, each consisting of 5 thin, stalked, ovate leaflets, pointed at the apex and rounded or narrowed at the base, the 3 upper leaflets being larger than the 2 lower ones. A cluster of from 6 to 20 small greenish-yellow flowers is produced in midsummer, followed by as many bright-crimson berries, each containing from 1 to 3 flattish wrinkled seeds the size of small peas. The berries of northern ginseng rarely contain 3 seeds are very common.
The root is thick, spindle-shaped, 2 to 4 inches long, and 1/2 to 1 inch or more in thickness in the older specimens generally branched and prominently marked with circular wrinkles. Branched roots of the wild Manchurian and Korean ginseng having some resemblance to the human form are said to be in particularly high favor in China, but this feature gives no special value to American ginseng. The seeds (fig. 2) are slow in germination and should never be permitted to become dry. As soon as they are gathered they should be mixed with twice their bulk of moist sand, fine loam, sawdust, or woods earth, stored in a damp, cool place until they are planted. As a rule the seeds do not germinate until a year from the spring following their ripening, and this fact must be borne in mind in purchasing seed for planting.
Ginseng seedlings grow about 2 inches high the first year, with 3 leaflets at the apex of the stem. The second-year plants may reach a height of 5 or 6 inches, bearing 2 compound leaves, each composed of 5 characteristic leaflets. A third leaf is generally added the next year, when fruits may be expected. In succeeding years a fourth leaf is formed, and the fruiting head reaches its maximum development. A single plant of southern ginseng sometimes produces as many as 300 seeds, but northern ginseng very rarely produces more than 100 seeds to the plant, and under cultivation, the average seldom exceeds 40.
There are various recognizable geographical races of American ginseng, not all of which are of the same value to the grower. Plants from the northern range, particularly those indigenous to New York and Wisconsin, appear to possess the most useful characteristics and form the best basis for breeding stocks. Southern ginseng, though vigorous and forming roots of good size and shape, does not seed well at first in northern localities, but after a few years it becomes adapted to the climate and will mature seeds before frost. Some of the western types have long, thin roots of undesirable character, and another local form, dwarf in growth, has small, round, and almost worthless roots. The beginner should endeavor to procure from reliable dealers the best commercial types of ginseng as a foundation for his breeding stock.
The culture of native ginseng has been too brief to induce varietal changes, but liberal fertilization and continual selection of seeds from individual plants having superior commercial characteristics will doubtless in the end favorably modify the wild type of plants.
Soil and location are very important in the culture of ginseng, as it is a plant that grows naturally on the slopes of ravines and in other well-drained situations where the soil is formed from the acid leafmold of hardwood forests. The soil should be naturally dry, fairly light, and in a condition to grow good vegetables without the addition of strong manure. An absolutely new soil with the best of natural drainage is to be preferred. Very sandy soil should be avoided, as it tends to produce hard, flinty roots of inferior value. Although almost any fairly good soil can be brought into a condition suitable for ginseng by proper treatment, the cost of satisfactory sterilization is usually heavy. In numerous cases the addition of leafmold from hardwoods has given best results, since ginseng requires an acid soil. For seed-beds the soil should be half woods earth free from fiber, and, if it is inclined to be heavy, enough sand should be added so that the mixture will not bake or harden even after heavy rains.
GROWING THE CROP
Before the diseases of ginseng became such a menace to the industry, practical growers advised the starting of ginseng plantings with both young roots and seeds. By planting roots 3 or more years old a moderate seed crop may be had the first year, and a stock of 1-year or 2-year roots set at the same time will start the rotation which is necessary to provide for a marketable crop of roots each year after the first crop is harvested. However, the grower who purchases roots for planting incurs the risk of introducing diseases into his bed, and it appears to be the better policy not to take chances with roots but to depend entirely upon seeds.
Ginseng seeds are advertised for sale by many of the older growers and are usually procurable at prices varying from 50 cents to $1.50 per thousand. Seeds are often sold by weight, and it is estimated that 1 pound of average northern seed should produce 7,000 to 8,000 plants, and 1 pound of average southern seed 10,000 plants or more. Stratified seeds usually cost more than fresh seeds, but are regarded as far more satisfactory. Dealers almost invariably supply seed that is at least a year old unless new seed is specially requested. As the output of seeds is likely to become greater than is necessary to extend the plantation, it is well to restrict seed production by nipping the flower heads unless a good market for the seeds is assured. Roots gain more rapidly in size and weight if the plants are not permitted to seed.
Except in the far Northwest it is best to plant ginseng seeds in the fall. If they are held until spring, growth may start before they can be planted, in which case many may be lost. Only cracked or germinated seeds should be used. They should be planted 8 inches apart each way in the permanent beds, or 2 by 6 inches in seedbeds and the plants transplanted when 2 years old to stand 8 inches apart. The seeds should be covered 1 inch deep with woods soil or old rotten hickory or basswood sawdust; that from pine or oak trees should not be used. The roots may be set in October or later in the fall so long as the soil is in suitable condition, the crowns being placed about 2 inches below the surface. The most approved distance to plant is 8 inches apart each way, when roots are to be grown until 7 years old in permanent locations.
Many planters round the surface of the beds, making the center several inches higher than the sides, since they find space for more plants on the curved than on the flat surface; but others claim that the possible injury from drought in very convex beds more than offsets this advantage. It is important, however, to have the beds well built up with centers high enough not to retain water after a rain. The paths or alleys should be much lower than the beds, and if they decline from one end to the other they will serve as a surface drains during heavy rains. For roots the beds should be worked not more than 6 to 8 inches deep if on ordinary soil. Very heavy soils may be worked more deeply if necessary to obtain better drainage. Seedbeds need not be deeply stirred, as it is not advisable to have them settle to any marked extent.
Ginseng grows naturally in rather dense shade, and under cultivation it must be shielded from direct sunlight by some construction that will reduce the light to about one-fourth its normal intensity. When it is planted in open ground this may be accomplished by erecting sheds open on all sides, but covered at the top with lath or boards spaced as to cut out nearly three-fourths of the sunlight. It is not advisable to use burlap or muslin for shading, as these materials interfere with the free circulation of the air.
There are many methods of constructing shade, but the most common is to set posts firmly in the ground 8 feet apart each way and about 8 feet high above the ground. Scantlings 2 by 4 inches in size are nailed on top of the posts so as to run the long way of the shed. The shade is usually made in sections 4 by 8 feet long, using common 4-foot laths or slats nailed on strips 2 by 2 inches and 8 feet long. The laths should be spaced from one-fourth to one-half inch apart, according to locality, whether in the North or in the South. These sections of shading are laid on top of the 2-by-4 inch runners and so nailed to the posts that the laths run about north and south, thus giving the plants below the benefit of constantly alternating light and shade (fig. 3). Owing to the high cost of lumber, some growers advocate replacing the runners with No. 4 wire, which is run over the tops of the posts and securely fastened thereto.
In the constuction of artificial shade it should be borne in mind that free ventilation is very necessary for ginseng. “The higher the shade the better” is a maxim worth following, as gardens with a free circulation of air are apparently less likely to become diseased.