American Ginseng: 101
Wild American Ginseng is a highly prized & sought after crop in markets around the world. It has been culturally important for it’s value as a medicinal herb for centuries. Wild ginseng is often cherished & appreciated for it’s ‘beauty & wild character’ by those who collect ginseng for consumption or display. Farmed ginseng from the US & Canada is heavily utilized in the worldwide health industry as a key ingredient.
Unlike farmed or ‘cultivated’ roots, wild ginseng grows in rich forest soils often on steep & rocky slopes. In the Southern Appalachians, this rich environment hosts a very unique plant community. Wild ginseng is found along with other rare plants such as maidenhair & rattlesnake ferns, bloodroot, trilliums & goldenseal, along with less ‘friendly’ species like stinging nettles, poison ivy & ferocious briars. This specialized environment causes wild ginseng roots to have a character which reflects these challenging growing conditions.
Wild ginseng roots have certain desirable qualities that ‘farmed’ roots do not possess. Characteristics such as interesting & complex shapes, as well as stress rings & wrinkles create a ‘wild character’ or appearance, which is especially evident with older roots. This results in wild ginseng roots that often possess interesting & bizarre shapes, and sometimes even resembles a human figure. In the wild ginseng market, size is not always the sole indicator of value, as many factors including age, shape, and even ‘beauty’ can contribute to ‘grade’ and overall price on the international market.
Farmed (or cultivated) roots grow in tilled beds with regular applications of fertilizers & amendments, that promotes rapid growth and provides resistance to insects and diseases. This farmed ginseng ‘crop’ is often grown in a very high density artificial environment under shade cloth, and is harvested after only 4 or 5 years. This results in roots that look like quite different and lack the ‘natural characteristics’ of wild ginseng.
There is a ‘middle ground’ however; the beginnings of a ‘woods grown’ or ‘naturally cultivated’ movement have become an important factor in the future of ginseng as a species. These parcels of forest land are used to create an important ‘agroforestry’ or ‘non timber agriculture’ income for landowners & families. The importance of this is to help relieve pressure on the wild harvested roots by providing the international market with another option for this desirable commodity. By growing ginseng in an almost wild environment, it can produce a product that looks & tastes very similar to wild ginseng roots.
Farmed roots have become the mainstay of the international ginseng market, with these ginseng farms producing more than 95% of the world’s annual ginseng crop*. Products like energy drinks & health supplements rely heavily on these farmed ginseng roots for ‘bulk ingredient’. These products are crucial to the international ginseng trade & overall market. Both farm grown & wild ginseng provide the US with a very high value commodity crop for the international market.
*Ginseng Board of Wisconsin