Scientific Name Common Name
Genus: Panax Species: Panax ginseng (C.A. Meyer) Panax quinquefolium (L.) panax = panacea (cure all); ginseng = man root (a tonic or cure for human illnesses) Korean or Asian Ginseng American Ginseng
What is ginseng?
Ginseng is a deciduous perennial, native to northern hemisphere countries, and is prized for its medicinal and economic values. There are several species but only two are commercially (and medicinally) significant - Korean Ginseng from Asia, and American Ginseng from North America and Canada. Both species are currently being cultivated in Australia and both have existing markets, in Australia and Asia . Ginseng is known as the “King of Herbs” and is recognised as the most valuable agricultural crop in the world. Korean ginseng is used more for specific ailments, while American ginseng is used as a general tonic. Plants collected from the wild have been over 50 years old.
There is much mystery around ginseng, and stories abound in the literature, but its medicinal use and properties are well known. Ginseng is one of the most frequently studied medicinal herbs, with many hundreds of literature references in existence. Ancient history shows that Korean Ginseng was used as a medicine in China and Tibet as far back as 2,000 - 3,000 B.C. The earliest records concerning its pharmacological action come from Shen Nung’s Materia Medica, dated around 196 A.D. where it is described as “a tonic to the five viscera, quieting the spirits, establishing the soul, allaying fear, expelling effluvia, brightening the eye, opening up the heart, and if taken for some time it will invigorate the body and prolong life”.
Korean Ginseng is still used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and while American Ginseng is a relative newcomer, it has for the last 200 years also been recognised in TCM. The two species are known to have exceptional medicinal properties and so have the greatest value over other species.
What does it look like and how does it grow?
When mature each Ginseng species may reach a height of between 30 - 60cm. Being a deciduous perennial, Ginseng produces a new top each year from a slow growing tuberous root. Ginseng seeds sprout in early September following a period of dormancy in cold then warm soil temperatures. In the first growing season, a single stem will appear in early spring with three serrate, ovate leaflets. Each autumn the leaves turn orange or yellow and die off, but below ground, the root survives, to sprout the following spring. Ginseng prefers shady slopes, low pH soil with high (10%) organic matter, and high (5,500kg/Ha) calcium levels.
In the second growing season, a single stem with two “branches” (prongs) will appear, one with five leaflets, the other with three. In subsequent years, a new prong is added until the fifth year when the plant matures, and after that it continues to have up to five prongs each with five leaflets. After each growing season the dormant root is left with an age scar. A new bud for the next season’s growing period develops, from which each year’s growth occurs. The root may double in size during each of the first few growing seasons until about the 6th year, when root growth rate begins to decrease.
At six years ginseng plants are usually considered mature, with up to 80% of medicinal strength achieved. In subsequent years of growth plants are adding marginally to the remaining 20%. However, it is this last 20% which sees the plant consolidating its medicinal qualities.
Older plants become increasingly valuable. Organic growers usually harvest their plants from years seven to ten, and some growers harvest sooner than later (4th year is the earliest).
Ginseng reproduces only by seed, not by root division. The only part of the plant which can grow from the root is that part with an intact “bud”. Other parts broken off will not grow without this bud.
There are no “cultivars” of ginseng - all species are distinct and no cross breeding has been recorded, even where closely related species have been grown next to each other. It is one of the few plants which remain “untamed”, and attempts to develop commercial hybrids by selective breeding or by tissue culturing continue to be challenging.
In the right conditions, ginseng plants usually flower and set seed in the 3rd or 4th growing season.
A cluster of flowers form on a stalk. After pollination, the green berries gradually turn red. Each berry may contain 1-3 seeds.
What part of the plant is harvested and how is Ginseng consumed?
All parts of the plant can be used, but it is the root which has the most medicinal interest. The leaves can be dried and used as tea leaves; the pulp from the seeds can be made into a beverage (as a wine or soft drink); and the seeds are kept for growing replacement plants, therefore saving the cost of importing or buying from another grower (of course, your seeds could be sold to other growers). Hence, the main focus is really on producing quality, organic roots, and developing your own seed supply.
Ginseng is consumed either dried or fresh. Roots are often dried, powdered then encapsulated. Sachets containing powdered roots are also available.
Other products include ginseng extracts, teas, shampoos, soap, chewing gum, slices in honey, lollies, soft drinks, displayed ginseng in a glass jar .
Only organic, slowly grown, aged ginseng can truly be a medicine when used in the dosages recommended by practitioners.
Ginseng - an oriental tonic for western illnesses
The main active components of ginseng are called saponins, or sometimes, ginsenocides. Individual ginsenocides, when isolated and tested, appear to have separate effects - such as stimulating the central nervous system, sedating the central nervous system, balancing metabolic processes, decreasing blood sugar, improving muscle tone, stimulating the endocrine system, and maintaining proper hormone levels.
Ginseng is sometimes referred to as an “adaptogen”. As the name implies, an adaptogen will help the body to adapt to the demands made of it. American ginseng may be the perfect anti-stress tonic for people in a modern hectic lifestyle. While improving vitality, American Ginseng promotes a more soothing, balancing response, while Korean Ginseng has a higher warming excitatory action.
Practicing Chinese herbalists prefer to treat patients with natural substances grown in the area in which the patient lives. When we finally have ginseng grown in Australia from Australian grown seed, then we will truly have a product that herbalists and naturopaths will clamour for.
Bailey, W.G., Whitehead, C., Proctor, J.T.A., and Kyle, J.T. (1994). The Challenges of the 21st
Century: Proceedings of the International Ginseng Conference – Vancouver. Simon Fraser
University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada.
Hosemans, Fred & Charlene, 1992. Ginseng Growing in Australia. Published and distributed by Gembrook Organic Ginseng. Also available from Agmedia.
Hyde, K.W.,1998. New Rural Industries – A Handbook for Farmers and Investors. Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC). To obtain a copy Ph: (02) 6272 4539.
Persons, Scott, 1986. American Ginseng - Green Gold. Bright Mountain Books.
Australian Ginseng Growers Association Inc. phone/fax: (03) 5968 1877 PO Box 250, Gembrook, Victoria, 3783
www.ginseng.org.au email: email@example.com
Australia hosted the International Ginseng Conference in Melbourne in 2003.
It is important to keep your seeds moist and well ventilated prior to planting.
Do not store them in a sealed plastic bag or container. Store the seed in the bag supplied as it is designed to allow airflow.
Keep the seeds moist if you intend to plant them for the next growing season.
This is a basic guide to help you succeed with your ginseng growing adventure. As you are aware, ginseng farming is a lengthy process. There will be other points that you should familiarise yourself with to ensure your continued success. Further reading should done on plant care –bed preparation, feeding, water, pests, disease, etc. Becoming involved with the Australian Ginseng Growers Association would give you an opportunity to meet with others of like mind and draw on their members
Optimum growing conditions
• Ginseng Requires 75-85% shade in the growing season.
• Soil acidity pH 5.0-6.5
• High, organic matter content.
• High levels of calcium (5,500kg/Ha).
• Loam to clay soils that are well draining not wet.
• South facing slopes or flat ground with raised beds.
• A distinct, four season climate with a cold winter (not tropical, humid conditions).
• Leaf litter mulch to cover beds. This protects the seeds from drying out.
• Plant approximately 5mm DEEP.
• Scattering the seeds and lightly covering with soil works well.
• Cover generously with leaf mulch.
• The seeds can be planted close together. One year, old rootlets should be transplanted into beds allowing space between plants of about 15- 30cm to help control fungal problems.
You may start to have berries develop in the second year.
Flowers usually appear through November and the berries start to form 4 or 5 weeks later. They are green at first, then towards the end of January they start to turn red. Timing may be different each year due to the climate.
Some leaves may be harvested for tea after the second growing season. Roots may be harvested from four years.
Where to grow ginseng & site selection
Areas anywhere south of Toowoomba or Stanthorpe in Queensland, to Tasmania may be suitable. The further south, the more favourable will conditions become, especially along the slopes of the Great Dividing Range. As wild simulated ginseng, most success has come from growing ginseng under established tree plantations, such as pine trees, blue gum (wet sclerophyll). Blackwood, and other deciduous trees with a good shade canopy.
Wild simulated without cultivating using the forest floor.
This is the easiest and least expensive method. A naturally well shaded and sheltered site isrequired for this method. The roots produced can resemble wild roots in appearance.
Wild simulated within cultivated beds.
The wild simulated method involves cultivating and organising your beds under natural bush shade for maximum crop potential, by planting with open spacings. You still need a well shaded and sheltered site and roots should resemble wild roots in appearance.
Under natural bush shade with artificial shade in cultivated beds.
If you have a treed block and want to produce more roots than in the wild simulated method, you can grow ginseng under trees in prepared beds with added shade. Depending on the type of trees in that location. If you are planting under open-canopy-eucalypts, you will need additional shade. You can do this by planting shade producing shrubs or small trees, or with artificial shade structures to achieve the correct shade density.
Under artificial shade in cultivated beds
Most of the world’s ginseng is grown under artificial shade structures, anything can be utilized, the materials used are only limited by your imagination. By using cleared land, there is a significant saving in time and effort in being able to use mechanical equipment in preparing beds. Traditionally, this method has not used organic methods. The use of fungicides and pesticides is common.
The beds need to be well prepared and monitored. Spacing of the ginseng is important. Airflow inside of the shade structure should be good and not create humidity.
How much seed should I plant?
3kg of seed is enough to plant out 1000m2 (1/4 acre) at a spacing of 15cm x 10cm (6”x4”). If you want closer spacings for more intensive production, then more ginseng seed will be required. Five kilograms of ginseng seed for 1000m2 (1/4 acre) is considered intensive planting for a commercial organic ginseng planting, at a spacing of 10cm x 10cm (4”x4”). Intense planting requires intense management. By planting less you’ll gain healthier, and more valuable ginseng roots.
Obtaining one or two year old ginseng rootlets is a way of getting a ginseng bed developed quickly, for the first season or two. It is more expensive than by seed. However, by doing this you, develop confidence quickly, have more ginseng roots survive, and shorten the time to harvest.
To have an annual income you will need to plant a crop each year. 400 m2, (1/10th acre) is a minimum area for a commercial quantity organic ginseng. Do this the first year or two to gain some experience. Then, advance to a larger area (1/4 acre = 1,000 square metres) for the next year or two. You may later wish to advance to 1/2 acre (2,000 square metres). However, avoid planting these larger areas until you have gained confidence and experience with smaller areas.
Growing ginseng is challenging, but can be rewarding and profitable. With all methods, start small and get to know the plant. By keeping plants a good distance apart you will minimise problems such as fungal diseases. The price paid for intensively grown ginseng is usually about ten times less than organic grown ginseng.