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And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.....Genesis 1:29

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Ginseng has been used as a medicinal herb in the Orient for centuries, but is fairly new as a medicinal herb to those of us in the western hemisphere.  It is prized for its root, which sometimes takes on the shape of a human, thus giving rise to its 2,000 year history in China as basically a cure-all for mankind.  There are only two true Ginsengs - Korean and American, which in itself is interesting, as these two very close relatives are only found on absolute opposite sides of the globe.  In the 1700's, the frenzied and lucrative export of American Ginseng to China began, and by the end of the 19th Century, the plant was nearly extinct in America due to habitat destruction and over-harvesting. Today, the plant is still on the endangered list in most areas, and much of the wild harvesting has given way to controlled and deliberate cultivation.  

Ginseng is indeed still a lucrative cash crop for farmers, but growing it requires a lot of skill, money, and patience.  It is a picky plant that requires just the right amounts of light, the right soil, the right temperatures, and several years of patience until it grows into a suitable crop for harvesting.  Commercial growers do exist, however, but they are few and far between, and they are for the most part quite tight-lipped about their tools and techniques.  

The different Ginsengs are treated differently commercially as far as price, grade, etc., so they warrant a look here to help get the best product for your purposes:

Korean Ginseng is part of the Araliaceae family and is also known as Panax, Asian, or Chinese ginseng.  It is the original ginseng, and is the one revered most by the Chinese.  It is very rare in the wild, and most sold today is cultivated commercially.  Peeled roots are steamed before drying, and produce Red Ginseng.  White Ginseng is produced by sun-drying the roots.  Most Korean Ginseng is sold as Red Ginseng.  

American Ginseng, or Panax Quinquefolium, is a close relative and is in the same family as Korean Ginseng, and is used in basically the same ways, but is considered somewhat milder and cooler.  

Siberian Ginseng, or Eleuthero Ginseng shares the same general species as the true Ginsengs, but not the same genus.  What this means is that it is related to the true Ginsengs about as closely as dogs are related to giraffes.  It does share some of the same biochemical properties as its Ginseng half-brothers, however, and as such is used in basically the same ways. 

Ginsengs have glossy green leaves and somewhat resemble a ground cover, except they are too sparse and too tall.  They have a thin, single stem that arises from the top of the root that shrinks year by year as the plant grows, thereby causing wrinkles or rings at the top of the root which enable one to estimate the plant's age.  The leaves turn yellow and die each fall, leaving a scar, and the plant's age can also be determined by counting these scars.   The taste is bitter-sweet, or more correctly sweet-bitter, and the root is often used in Thai and Korean dishes.  

So what does this all mean for the home gardener who wants to try their hand at growing Ginseng?  It means go ahead and try, but be prepared for a battle from the day you stick that first seed in the ground unless you just happen to already have the perfect conditions for it in your back yard.  

Ginseng is usually started from seed by home or amateur gardeners.  Plant the seeds in the fall, as they require a cold period of at least four months, and they will hopefully emerge in the spring.  They can be started in a greenhouse or seedbed and then transplanted after two years, if desired.  

The permanent area whether you use transplants or sow the seed directly should be in fairly deep shade (75-80%), such as in a woodland area, have moist, organically rich soil, and should have excellent drainage, because Ginseng is very susceptible to many rots and funguses.  The plants should be mulched to simulate a forest floor as closely as possible.  The roots reach harvestable size in 5-7 years but can be left un-harvested indefinitely for bigger roots.  

Ginseng seed can be harvested in August of the plant's third year when the berries turn red.  You can go back and harvest several times, as the berries mature at different rates.  Place the berries in a cloth bag, and mash a couple of times a day for 4-5 days to release the seed from the berries.  Place the bags in water to float off the residue, and the seeds will sink to the bottom.  Place the seed in sand in a box with a screen for the top and bottom, and bury 4 inches below the surface of the soil to emulate natural conditions.  Mark your calendar, and go back in 18 months to recover the seed and plant accordingly.  

When the plants have been started from seed, Ginseng roots can be harvested in 6-7 years.  Use a garden fork and carefully uproot the plant   Place the root in water to remove all the caked-on dirt, then dry on screens in the shade.  Turn them daily to inspect for mold, and move to the sun for short periods if mold is present. When thoroughly dry, the roots are ready for use.



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