Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
From time to time I receive questions on ginseng, as it is a crop that commands a high price in the market. But why the high price? Why is it so special?
Ginseng is the common name of species in the genus Panax, which contains eleven different species. There are also other plants commonly called ginseng that aren't members of this genus. This is another case where common names can be misleading.
The genus name Panax comes from the Greek 'panakeia' which means universal remedy. The name ginseng is derived from the Chinese term 'jen-shen' which means 'in the image of a man'. Forked ginseng roots often resemble the human body and are considered highly desirable.
The two commonly marketed species of ginseng are Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), native to Northern Manchuria, and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), native to deciduous forests in the eastern United States.
Ginseng is a perennial herb that grows about 24 to 30 inches above the ground with a deep red stem. It produces pink flowers and a small red berry. The leaves are compound with five oval-shaped, serrated-edge leaflets, three of which are larger than the rest. Some say the leaves resemble the human hand, which is where an alternate common name of 'five fingers' comes from. The roots are very thick, fleshy, and often forked. They are also highly aromatic.
Ginseng's history as a valuable medicinal herb began in China. The first written records where ginseng is mentioned date back to 1 B.C. Traditionally, the dried root of ginseng is consumed as a remedy for a wide variety of ailments. It is considered to be a tonic or stimulant that provides overall strength, vitality, and even is considered an aphrodisiac. Roots that are particularly old are highly sought after, as many believe the longevity of the roots will be transferred to the person that consumes them.
Modern 'Western' medicine has not found conclusive evidence of ginseng's reported therapeutic effects. Despite this, it is always advisable to consult with your doctor before taking any herbal remedy including ginseng.
As ginseng became more popular in China and other parts of Asia, the supply of plants in the wild diminished. Asian plantations were established to try and meet the demand for the herb. In the 1700's missionaries from the U.S. learned about ginseng and brought knowledge of its value home with them.
The Asian demand for ginseng created a market for American ginseng. Though it is a different species than Asian ginseng, American ginseng is also believed to have similar therapeutic value as its Asian cousin.
American ginseng became one of the first herbs exported from the U.S. in the 1700's. At one time wild American ginseng thrived from the east coast of the U.S. west to Minnesota. Over-harvesting of wild ginseng eliminated many natural populations, and by the mid-1970's wild American ginseng was declared an endangered species.
A ginseng plant takes a minimum of three to five years to produce a marketable crop from seed. Also, most of the labor in tending a ginseng crop is done by hand. These are part of the reason ginseng commands a high price at market. The supply is inherently limited, and the labor involved is extensive.
Another factor limiting the available supply of ginseng is the growing conditions it requires. Ginseng is grows naturally in the understory of deciduous forests, where it thrives in the shade and rich organic layer of leaf litter on the forest floor.
It is possible to grow a cultivated crop of ginseng on forested land, in fact some consider this ginseng to be more valuable than other planting conditions. Techniques for growing large crops of ginseng on non-forested land are credited to the four Fromm brothers from the township of Hamburg, near Wausau, Wisconsin in Marathon County.
In 1904 the Fromm brothers transplanted 100 wild ginseng plants from the woods onto their own land. They carefully re-created the conditions present in the forest and became the first farmers to grow a successful ginseng crop outside of the forest.
Marathon County, Wisconsin became a very popular place to grow ginseng. Today they are considered the Ginseng Capitol of the world. There are 3,000 acres of ginseng grown in Marathon County, producing 1.3 to 1.5 million pounds of ginseng each year. Though ginseng has gained in popularity in the U.S., most of the ginseng crop is exported to Hong Kong.
Though the dried roots can sell for $20 to $45 per pound, ginseng farming is a long-term investment of time and money. Purdue estimated that it costs about $20,000 and 600 hours per acre per year to grow ginseng. Combined with other equipment costs, they also estimate a farmer would not expect any return on their investment for three or four years, and it could take up to ten years to break even!