New York Correspondent
SHERBURNE, N.Y. — The room at St Malachy’s Church was filled with people anxious to discover the secrets of growing and harvesting the perennial herb ginseng at a workshop sponsored recently by the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chenango County.
“Ginseng has been used by more than half the world’s population for 5,000 years,” said retired New York state ginseng specialist Bob Beyfuss, who has been growing and harvesting ginseng for more than 30 years.
Explaining how the demand and cost for ginseng has increased, Beyfuss said, “The normal rule is to find a market prior to growing a product, but ginseng is the only exception to the rule. The quality and age of the ginseng root determines the market price, but there is always a market for the roots.”
Ginseng is not a cure, but is believed to keep the body healthy and adapt to stress, Beyfuss said. And studies also show that ginseng’s berry pulp juice has had favorable results in the treatment of diabetes.
There is a large difference between Asian and American ginseng, Beyfuss said. Asian ginseng is used as a stimulant, whereas American ginseng is used for its calming effects. Beyfuss said the most valued part of either ginseng are the roots. And that value increases the older they are and the wilder they look.
Age is determined by counting the growth nodes on the neck of the ginseng, below the bud. Since the plant is often dormant, the age is considered several years older than the nodes represent. There is no difference in potency between cultivated, wild and simulated wild (grown in non-tilled forestland) ginseng, yet the demand for wild or wild-simulated ginseng is greater and drives the price upward. Although cultivated ginseng can grow rapidly, the ground can only support ginseng growth for roughly five years.
American ginseng is native to North America; it was once abundant and now considered scarce. Wild ginseng is valuable, selling for $500 to $1,500 per dried pound.
In order to be considered wild, Beyfuss said, “I would expect the root to be 350 years old. There is almost certainly no true wild ginseng untouched by human hands in North America. Humans have impacted all ginseng growing in the wild.”
“Only wild ginseng is regulated. Once you plant the seeds, the plants are yours. The DEC is regulating something which doesn’t exist anymore,” Beyfuss said.
Ginseng is an internationally protected plant, but not threatened or endangered. You need a license to grow ginseng, but not to harvest it. Certificates and permits are available at no cost for selling and transferring ginseng.
In 1976, the DEC began the controlled seasonal harvest of ginseng. The harvest starts Sept. 1, when the leaves turn gold and the berries ripen to a bright red.
The berries must be replanted within 50 feet of the harvested roots.
Beyfuss said that this year the season was early, with the berries ripe Aug. 1 and past readiness in September.
Types of Ginseng
Wild ginseng is native to most areas of the world. According to Beyfuss, wild ginseng is occasionally found and has become very valuable.
Wild-simulated ginseng is grown in non-tilled forest land for at least nine to 12 years. These dried roots are the most similar to wild ginseng. If you choose to grow ginseng with this method, Beyfuss suggests you keep accurate records and photographs to prove it is cultivated and not wild.
Wood-cultivated ginseng is grown in beds of a forest environment for six to nine years. Field-cultivated ginseng is grown under artificial shade for three or four years.
Wild-simulated requires hand tools, while the wood-cultivated process uses mechanical tillage.
Growing ginseng in the woods is difficult due to the many uncontrollable variables. Mimicking natural growing conditions is optimal for ginseng growth. Beyfuss suggests evaluation of the woodlot. Observe the tree types present. An old sugar bush is a great site for ginseng, as the roots grow well in a plot of mixed hardwood and deciduous trees.
In addition to the tree species, certain plant species can be favorable for ginseng growth, as well.
“The easiest way to identify a good site for growing ginseng is to evaluate the natural plants,” Beyfuss said. “The trees are very important, but so are the Maidenhair fern, Rattlesnake fern and baneberry plants.”
The slope is not as important for the growth of ginseng as it is for the comfort of the person harvesting the crop. Ginseng will grow on any slope, utilizing only the top four inches of the soil as the plants grow at right angles and horizontally. Beyfuss said he has found that no matter what the elevation of the hill, ginseng prefers to grow at the middle of the hill.
Beyfuss estimated that at any given time, 10 percent of any ginseng plot is dormant.
“The roots could be dormant for six years, depending upon the competition of trees, amount of sunlight and tree harvesting,” he said.
Site Preparation and
When creating ginseng plots, Beyfuss suggests staggering the planting so a variety of ages of roots can be harvested together.
When planting expect failures. Plant seeds ¾ inch deep after the leaves are raked aside; then replace the leaves. For wild-simulated ginseng, plant five seeds per square foot. If ginseng is planted too thick, all the crop will be lost. A 2-year-old planting will still need thinning.
Beyfuss suggests doing a test plot by putting 50 seeds in each section of an egg carton. Then survey 12 test plots, each one square yard in area, at the base of a sugar maple. Scratch the dirt ¾ inch deep, broadcast the seed evenly and walk over the seeds to cover, Beyfuss said.
“Two percent of the seeds will germinate the first year,” Beyfuss said. “Expect a plot of 10 plants out of 50 seeds to grow. ... That’s why you need to plant every year.”
Alternaria Leaf Blight is a serious follicular disease which can be transmitted from the soil or the seed. The disease causes premature defoliation which results in reduced root weights. Finding an area new to ginseng will help prevent the diseases. To prevent seed-born diseases, Beyfuss suggests sterilizing the seeds by placing them in a mixture of 1 cup of bleach to 1 gallon of water for five minutes. Stir and rinse. Don’t dry the seeds completely. Float seeds in water to test for viability. Floaters are hollow and won’t grow.
When planting roots, the bud is planted up and then roots go horizontal. Don’t plant the roots downwards. Applying fertilizer, compost or any organic matter will kill the ginseng plants. Ginseng grows best in 4.5 to 7.5 pH soil. Gypsum adds calcium but wont change the pH. Changing the pH will change the soil composite drastically. Ginseng grows best near sugar maple, where the pH is very low.
The larger the plant, the larger the root and the more income. Harvesting wild-simulated ginseng at eight years will bring a good price, but harvesting 25-year-old ginseng will double the price.
Thirty to 100 roots will equal one pound of dried ginseng. Once dried, the roots will last indefinitely; otherwise, they will disintegrate.
“Use your fingers to get the most of the root as possible out of the ground,” Beyfuss said. Dig ginseng with your fingers or a blunt screwdriver, working the plant out horizontally to harvest the most root possible without damaging it.
Beyfuss said wild top-grade ginseng is worth $400 to $600 per pound in New York’s Chinatown.
Once harvested. the roots need to be hosed or lightly washed to preserve some signs of soil. Unwashed green ginseng is sold at a much lower rate. To dry the roots, never use a microwave or oven. Air drying over a long period of time is best. Air needs to flow around the roots, so try placing them on screens in an area where temperatures are 70 to 90 degrees.
Ginseng root can be made into vinegar for salads, or used in commercial products such as teas and powders.
With ginseng prices increasing, security has become an issue. Beyfuss describes a poacher as someone who comes across wildly growing ginseng and harvests the largest plants. Thieves will also steal ginseng from fenced and obviously cultivated ginseng plots.
Beyfuss said there is more ginseng growing now due to the good stewardship practices of waiting till the berries are ripe and replanting the berries at harvest.
For more information about growing and harvesting ginseng, contact Rebecca Hardgrave at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chenango County at jrh45cornell.edu.