Though hunting for ginseng has long been practiced, in recent years it has become increasingly lucrative as the root makes its way into more and more food products, most notably bottled drinks. Whether you do it for fun or for profit, ginseng hunting requires special knowledge and a lot of practice to meet with regular success. Wild ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) grows most readily in the moist, deciduous hardwood forests of eastern North America. Below is a brief guide to getting started with ginseng hunting.
In many states, wild ginseng is regulated to protect it from over-harvesting. For example, in Wisconsin, any person who sells ginseng or digs for ginseng on land that he does not own must first obtain a ginseng harvester’s license, which is in effect for only two autumn months. Similar regulations exist in many other states. Before digging any ginseng at all, consult your state natural resources office about laws in your area.
Though the ginseng plant’s fleshy roots are what you’re hunting for, you’ll only find them if you can identify the plant’s above-ground growth. Generally, mature wild ginseng grows to no more than 20 inches, with four or five short branches, or prongs, that diverge at the top of a narrow stalk. Five oval leaflets are arranged at the end of each prong. During harvest time in the autumn, the plant usually features bright red berries near the top of the stem where the prongs diverge. However, the berries are usually eaten by birds in quick order. To learn the ginseng plant thoroughly, study photographs or visit a ginseng cultivator to get a close look at the plant.
It’s also important to know the plants that often grow nearby ginseng. For example, ginseng is well-suited to growing beneath stands of hickory, beech, and poplar trees. If, instead, you are hunting among oaks and mountain laurels, you won’t have much success.
Additionally, you can look for plants that have growing requirements similar to ginseng. If you see a golden seal plant, for example, you’ll know the conditions are good for wild ginseng. Wild sarsaparilla and jack-in-the-pulpit plants are also indicative of ginseng habitat. Visit your local forestry office for help identifying other local indicator plants. A field guide to plant identification is also an indispensable tool.