American Ginseng Biology

Ginseng’s Range in the US and Canada
Map courtesy of the AAFC, Government of Canada

American ginseng is an inconspicuous herbaceous plant found in the understory of the Eastern deciduous forest. In fact, to the untrained eye, ginseng looks very similar to many leafy green perennials blanketing the forest floor. These plants experience a sheltered life, literally. Large trees shade the understory, absorbing sunlight and reducing evaporation from the soil surface. Herbaceous plants, like ginseng, may be particularly sensitive to changes in their stable environment.

To see how a ginseng plant emerges in the spring, watch our time-lapse video Ginseng Emerges, Spring 2014. For more information on how a ginseng plant grows throughout the year, watch a time-lapse video of a Year in the Life of a Ginseng Plant- 2013 .

Plants adapt their basic body plan in amazing ways in order to fully exploit their environment. Take the saguaro cactus, for example. Those needles, which constitute a prickly defense against herbivory, are actually modified leaves. Ginseng also has a few evolutionary surprises. Ginseng’s stem is actually found below ground. During the growing season, this structure, known as a rhizome, develops a bud that will grow into the next year’s visible ginseng plant. Each fall, when the aboveground part of ginseng senesces, a scar is formed on the rhizome. Since one scar is formed per growing season, plants can be aged by counting the scars. Since rhizomes must be left attached to the root, compliance with the 5 year age minimum can be checked when the roots are dug and upon sale. Rhizomes can also be used (along with seeds) to propagate plants1 and in fact many old time ginseng harvesters used to plant the rhizomes at harvest to assure continuation of the population. The age requirement can have a negative effect of preventing one means of assuring continuation of the population. Since the rhizome produces a clone of the parent plant, this mode of reproduction helps to assure propagation of already-successful genotypes. Try to age the plant in the drawing.