Chapter 7: Woods Cultivated Ginseng

Ginseng can be grown on woodland sites in the Pacific Northwest, although it is not a common practice. On the East Coast of the United States woods-cultivated and wild simulated ginseng is commonly grown under the large spreading canopies of native maple, oak, elm, ash, and beech. The ideal location would be a stand of mature hardwoods on a northeast facing hillside with thick, moist leaf litter and little undergrowth. In northern growing regions (40 degrees north latitude) the direction of exposure is less critical. In the east, woods cultivated and wild simulated ginseng is often grown on slopes greater than 5% in order to ensure good drainage. Land that is too steep to till can be planted with ginseng.

Why the higher respect for woods grown ginseng?
The Chinese believe that the slower growth of wild ginseng results in a higher concentration of ginsenosides per unit of root weight. The slower growing roots have time to gather a greater amount of the curative properties that the soil can offer. Wild North American root closely resembles the wild Oriental ginseng. The roots have prominent concentric growth rings, and the roots turn a dark brown over time. As ginseng does not grow wild in the Pacific Northwest, woods cultivation techniques are used to mimic the quality of wild root.

Woods grown ginseng will more closely resemble the dark, gnarly, nature of wild root. While the price for woods cultivated or wild simulated root is not nearly as high as true wild ginseng, it is high enough to spark interest on the part of landowners that have forestland and can spare the time to raise the root.

Woods grown ginseng
The Northwest forest is typically very different than that of the East Coast. Our forest conifers, including Douglas fir, and western red-cedar, along with our native alder and bigleaf maple, tend to have a greater percentage of branches closer to the ground, especially when they are younger. Conifer roots systems are shallow and thus can compete for soil moisture with the ginseng. In order to grow ginseng in the Northwest forests, lower limbs will have to be pruned up to a height of 15' to ensure enough space to work under, as well as to provide good air movement. Maple groves can be especially difficult, as the root systems are very shallow. In addition, the trees produce an abundance of seeds, which can develop a thicket of new maple trees.

Woods cultivated
refers to the production of ginseng in the native forest after having first cleared away competing vegetation and rototiling the ground. Raised beds may be shaped as well. Scott Persons, in his 1994 book entitled: American Ginseng Green Gold (see Chapter 19: Further References) has some very nice black and white photos of woods cultivated ginseng. Harvest of woods cultivated ginseng can start after 5-6 years. The literature reports yields of 1,500 lbs./acre.

Wild simulated
refers to the practice of simply pushing seeds into the soil with only minimal clearing. Competing herbaceous vegetation is cleared by hand in the spring as the ginseng plants emerge. Wild simulated gardens yield up to 400 lb./ac, depending upon the amount of stress the plants are under. Roots are not harvested for 7-12 years. Wild simulated plots tend to be quite small. Landowners in the eastern United States have had poaching problems with wild simulated ginseng.

Ensure adequate shade
The first step in accessing the feasibility of the using the native northwest forest for ginseng is to observe the degree of shade found in the forest. The ginseng will need at least 75-80% shade in order to survive. Within a deciduous forest, look for patterns of light and shadow on the ground. Suitable sites could have ferns, Solomon seal, jack-in-the pulpit, and trillium as ground vegetation. A site with ferns indicates that sufficient moisture is present.

Trees have to be healthy
Carefully assess the overall health of all the large trees in the proposed planting site. Mature trees will need to continue to provide shade over an 8-10 year time frame. If the trees are not thrifty and were to fall over, all the hard work of planting ginseng may be lost. If trees do die off, artificial shade cloth will have to be purchased and suspended from a wire suspension system, as is the case with cultivated production.

Brush removal
If the site looks promising, and woods cultivated ginseng will be produced, all brush, small trees, stumps, and herbaceous weed growth will need to be removed. One application of Roundup applied to the competing vegetation helps considerably in ensuring that it is completely dead before the top growth is removed. Don't make the mistake of first cutting down small trees. It's much easier to kill the tree first with either girdling or herbicides, and then pull the whole works out with a log chain behind a tractor.

For woods cultivated ginseng, a heavy-duty rototiller or small tractor can be used to till the soil to a depth of 6-8". Rear-tine tillers, though more expensive than models with the tines up front, penetrate the soil better and are not as cumbersome to control. During this operation the roots of the large standing trees should not be cut. Eastern growers often form raised planting beds in the woods as in a cultivated garden. Raised beds, 6-8" tall, would help if the soil moisture drainage was in question. The rows don't need to be straight but the beds should be 4' wide, with the alleyway 2' wide.

Steep ground precautions
On steeper ground, walk the tiller up the slope, allowing the tines to till to a depth of 6-8". A second pass going down the hill should be enough to make a good planting site. The rows should run up and down a slope to allow for better moisture drainage. Granular fertilizer and lime could be added at this time. One application applied pre-planted should be enough for the life of the crop. Small garden tractors have a place in these operations for tillage and bed construction. Take care not to cut the roots of overstory trees when using the more powerful tillers.

If raised beds are formed, seed should be scattered on top of the shaped beds as in cultivated fields. The beds will need to be mulched with leaf litter or compost right after planting as field mice have a strong affinity for the taste and smell of the seeds. Control mice with either baits or traps. Slugs will become a problem unless bait is used to keep their numbers lower. During the succeeding years, competing herbaceous vegetation should be removed either by hand or with wiper applications of Roundup.

Wild simulated ginseng
If the goal is to produce wild simulated ginseng, essentially very little ground preparation is done. Stratified seed is scattered beneath canopy of the forest and covered with a layer of leaf litter or other mulch. The ideal plant spacing is on the order of 1 plant square foot so that each plant has plenty of air movement to cut down on disease pressure. Start off by raking the leaves off. Scatter seeds on the bare soil and rake them in lightly. Then rake the leaves back onto the seeds immediately to provide a mulch layer. Avoid planting low areas as these can be, too wet for best seed germination.

During the succeeding years very little cultural work is done in the beds other than for perhaps adding mulch in the spring, some weeding, and lots of mice and vole control. Anti-coagulant poison baits (such as Ramik Green) can work well to control mice and voles, but it must be protected from the weather. Inverted plastic pails, with cutouts for the mice, will keep the bait fresher longer. Sawdust can be used for mulch as it will help discourage slugs. Wild simulated root yields are much lower as the plants have to compete with brush, mice, slugs, and competition for moisture from the surrounding vegetation.

Establishing woodland gardens with transplants
Growers have started successful woods grown ginseng using 2-year old transplants from shaded nurse beds. Transplanted roots are strong to start with and can be planted at optimal spacings. The primary advantage over using seed to establish woods-grown gardens is the significant reduction in loss due to mice. Growers in the Northwest have found that intact roots work best for woods grown gardens. When rejected cut roots were used (see Chapter 8: Root transplanting for a detailed description of rejects) there was more loss due to decay.

In the book entitled: American Ginseng Green Gold (see Chapter 19: Further References), Scott Persons sets his transplanted roots at a spacing of 6 by 9". Woods cultivated gardens are harvested after 6-7 years of root growth and may have a value of $165-$225 per pound for dried root. Wild simulated root is generally harvested after 10- 15 years and can return prices similar to true wild ginseng. Wild simulated ginseng growers are best advised to not publicize the location of their gardens!