Ginseng is one of the world’s most popular herbal remedies. Both American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and Asian ginseng (P. ginseng) have been used for everything from aphrodisiacs and stimulants to muscle relaxants and diabetes treatments; thier use throughout history is renowned.
If you use ginseng and you live along much of the East Coast, anywhere bordering the Mississippi River, or in the Pacific Northwest, you’re in luck. You don’t have to drive to the nearest herbal store or shop online to buy this wonder herb. You can grow it in your perennial garden or, if you’re really lucky and have a woodland-type environment or one that is mostly shade, you can grow it just like it grows in nature – especially if your wooded area is on a sloping terrain.
Ginseng is particular about its soil requirements, and it’s a good idea to have your soil tested, advises Jenny Cruse Sanders, vice president for science and conservation at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. “The plants need a more neutral soil and will not do well in acidic soil,” she says. “A soil pH of about 5.6 to 6 should be fine. Depending on the pH of your soil, consider adjusting the pH with lime to get the right balance.”
Other than living in the right geographical area (ginseng can’t tolerate heat, so in the Deep South you would need to live in or near the Appalachian Mountains), being able to provide the correct soil pH, and having about 80 percent shade, you’ll only need to meet one other requirement to grow ginseng. Patience. And plenty of it. Ginseng can take from five to 10 years to reach a size where the prized roots can be harvested.
Here is a step-by-step process to grow ginseng using what is called the wild-simulated method. This method seeks to duplicate how ginseng grows naturally.
Order seeds or roots
Ginseng can be grown from seed or roots. Roots, of course, will reach maturity much faster than seeds. If ordering roots, do not cut them into sections. Ginseng roots must remain whole and can be planted in spring before they begin to bud, usually March or April, or in the fall after the berries have fallen.
If you live near the Appalachians within the natural range of the species, look for locally sourced seed from a trusted source, Sanders suggests. “The ideal seed will be organically grown (whether it is certified organic or not).” It is also important if ordering seeds through the mail to always buy them from a reputable grower.
Seeds from ginseng plants do not sprout the next year. They will sprout the year after falling to the ground because it will take them a year to lose the flesh of the berries that encase them and gain enough energy to sprout. This is process is called stratification. Most ginseng seeds offered for sale are stratified. “Green” seeds that have not been stratified are available, often at half the price of stratified seeds. Many ginseng growers prefer to pay the higher price of stratified seeds rather than wait a year on green seeds to become viable.
Select a suitable site
The ideal location will be in a well-shaded wooded area of 80 to 90 percent shade where hardwoods trees – such as tulip poplar, maple, beech, hickory, walnut, and oak – are growing. The thicker the canopy the better as this will cut down on the number of understory plants that will over-shade or out-compete ginseng. If the growing area gets too much sun, the amount of light will encourage grass and weeds to grow, and these will choke out the ginseng. In a wooded natural habitat, the best place to plant ginseng will be on a north- or east-facing slope where the ground will be cooler than on south- or west-facing slopes. You’ll know you have the right spot if ginseng companion plants are growing in the area. Plants that favor the same growing conditions as ginseng include trillium (Trillium s.p.p.), blue or black cohosh (Caulophyllum thalactroides, Cimicifuga racemosa), jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema atrorubens), wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum). Excellent drainage is essential; avoid areas heavy in clay.
The first order of business is to dig carefully to avoid damaging the root. Push a pitchfork or needle-nose spade into the ground about 6 inches from the plant, dig under the plant and gently pry the root loose. If there is any risk of damaging the roots of adjacent, immature ginseng plants, do not attempt to harvest the plant.
Wash and dry the roots. Briefly soak the roots in a bucket of cool water to remove excess soil. Then place the roots in a single layer on a wood tray (do not let ginseng touch metal) and wash them under a sink faucet or with a hose. Do not scrub them or wash them too vigorously – some of the medicinal chemicals are thought to be concentrated in the root hairs, and removal of these hairs will decrease the usefulness and value of the root. Make sure the roots are not touching and let them dry on a wooden rack in a well ventilated room.
Growing ginseng in pots
If you decide to grow ginseng in pots on a patio or deck, let the wild-simulated method be your guide. Plant the seeds and cover them with about 1 inch of decaying leaves or mulch. Plant the seeds in the fall. They will sprout in the spring. The seeds can be planted in small plastic trays or peat trays and transplanted when they become several inches high. When transferring the seedlings to pots, choose plastic pots that are at least 8 inches deep. Don’t use clay pots for ginseng because clay absorbs moisture and dries out more easily than plastic. For decorative purposes, plastic pots can be inserted into clay pots. Be sure to keep the pots in a shady area.
Health benefits of ginseng
Traditionally ginseng has been used to treat a number of different ailments. However, it should be noted that ginseng’s therapeutic properties are often questioned by Western scientists and health professionals because of little “high-quality” research determining its true effectiveness in medicine.
People who take ginseng, do so because they say it:
Ginseng is one of the most widely used herbal supplements.
Provides energy and prevents fatigue
Ginseng stimulates physical and mental activity among people who are weak and tired. A Mayo Clinic study revealed that ginseng showed good results in helping cancer patients with fatigue.
Improves cognitive function
Ginseng may improve thinking ability and cognition. Research published in the The Cochrane Library, conducted at the Medical School of Nantong University in China, examined whether this claim holds any truth.
Lead author, JinSong Geng, M.D., said that given the results of the study”Ginseng appears to have some beneficial effects on cognition, behavior and quality of life.”
Another study, published in the Journal of Dairy Science, explored whether it would be possible to incorporate American ginseng into foods. The researchers developed ginseng fortified milk with sufficient levels of ginseng to improve cognitive function.
Has anti-inflammatory effects:
Ginseng has seven constituents, ginsenosides, which have immune-suppressive effects, according to results of experiments which were published in the Journal of Translational Medicine
Allan Lau, who led the study, said that “the anti-inflammatory role of ginseng may be due to the combined effects of these ginsenosides, targeting different levels of immunological activity, and so contributing to the diverse actions of ginseng in humans”.
There may be substances in ginseng that have anticancer properties. A few population studies in Asia have linked the herb’s consumption to a lower risk of cancer.
Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center researchers found that Ginseng improved survival and quality of life after a diagnosis of breast cancer.
The American Cancer Society said that “clinical trials are still needed to determine whether it is effective in people.”
May help men with erectile dysfunction
Men may take ginseng to treat erectile dysfunction. A 2002 Korean study revealed that 60 percent of men who took ginseng noticed an improvement in their symptoms. In addition, research published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology provided”evidence for the effectiveness of red ginseng in the treatment of erectile dysfunction.”