American Ginseng

Panax quinquefolius

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Photo of American ginseng plant with ripe berries
The fruits of American ginseng mature in middle to late summer or early fall.
Jim Rathert
Edible
Family

Araliaceae (ginsengs)

Description

American ginseng is a perennial herb. Its leaves occur in a whorl at the top of the single stem, and each leaf is palmately compound, with 3 to 5 leaflets. Small, insignificant greenish-white flowers emerge in May–July on a stalk emerging from the base of the whorl of leaves. A cluster of red berries is produced in middle to late summer or early fall.

Similar species: A related species, dwarf ginseng (P. trifolius), grows in the northeast United States but not in Missouri. Other members of the ginseng family that are native or naturalized include English ivy, wild sarsaparilla, American spikenard, and Hercules' club. None are likely to be confused with American ginseng

Size

Height: to about 20 inches.

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Photo of ginseng plant with hand for scale
American Ginseng Leaves
American ginseng leaves occur in a whorl at the top of the stem, and each leaf is palmately compound, with 3 to 5 leaflets.

ginseng_berries.jpg

Photo of red American ginseng berry cluster
American Ginseng Berries
There is an official collecting season for ginseng harvest; consult the Missouri Wildlife Code. Diggers can help by squeezing the seeds from fruits into the hole left after the root is excavated.

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Photo of American ginseng plant on forest floor
American Ginseng in Forest
American ginseng grows in hardwood forests on shady, well-drained, north- and east-facing slopes in predominantly porous, humus-rich soils, and often in ravines.

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Photo of American ginseng in bloom
American Ginseng in Bloom
American ginseng's small, insignificant greenish-white flowers emerge in May and July.
Habitat and conservation

In hardwood forests on shady, well-drained, north- and east-facing slopes in predominantly porous, humus-rich soils, and often in ravines. Long valued as a medicinal plant, particularly overseas, wild and cultivated ginseng is an annual crop in the United States and Canada valued in excess of $25 million, but overzealous collection is causing serious concern about the survival of American ginseng in the forest ecosystem.

image of American Ginseng Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Scattered in the Ozark and Ozark Border Divisions; scattered to uncommon in the rest of the state. Apparently absent from most of the Mississippi Lowlands, Unglaciated Plains, and portions of the Glaciated Plains.

Status

More than 90 percent of Missouri's commercial harvest comes from wild plants. Because unlimited harvests have made ginseng decline or disappear in many places, harvest in some states is illegal. The ginseng trade is regulated internationally. It is also regulated under the Missouri Wildlife Code, with an official collecting season (usually Sept. 1 through Dec. 31, when fruits are on the plants). Please see American Ginseng Harvest Regulations below.

Human connections

Highly valued in Chinese herbal medicine, American ginseng root is dried and shipped overseas, where it is traditionally drunk as a tea. Recently, it has been put into a variety of other products as well. Oddly, most ginseng products sold in our country are made from Asian ginseng.

Ecosystem connections

In addition to humans, who have shown a pattern of overharvesting this plant, deer and other forest herbivores also consume American ginseng. Other threats to its survival include fragmentation and disruption of its habitat by human suburban and agricultural development.