University of Maryland Extension

Ginseng, a Unique Alternative Crop

Sara BhaduriHauck
Ginseng field

This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of Harford County's "Ag Notes" newsletter.

At the end of June, I was fortunate to attend a day of tours in western Maryland, hosted by my fellow ag agents in Garrett and Allegany counties. Among the stops that day were a creamery, an artisan cheese shop, an alternative energies business, and the Garrett   4-H robotics facility. But the most interesting stop, in my opinion, was to Harding’s Ginseng Farm.

I know a bit about ginseng as an herbal supplement, but I’d never thought about where it came from or its potential as a cash crop. Ginseng is a slow-growing perennial herb, thriving in the shade of mature forest canopy, that is native to the eastern United States and eastern Asia. It can be found growing wild but is rare to find due to over-harvesting that occurred in the 1970s. Today, wild ginseng is considered an endangered species and can only legally be harvested in 19 states.

Ginseng can, however, be cultivated in forested areas where it would naturally be found. At the farm we visited, ginseng beds are prepared by mowing the forest underbrush, removing any rocks, cultivating the soil, broadcasting seed (in the fall), and mulching with straw. Because it is slow-growing, a ginseng plant takes at least three to four years before the plant is large enough to harvest. The farmer we visited waits eight years before harvesting.

Ginseng can also be cultivated in farm fields using artificial shade, but this practice produces a root of inferior quality. Cultivated roots appear large, slick, and unbranched. But most buyers prefer a root that looks wild in appearance: slim, branching, and ridged. Ginseng cultivated in the woods and not provided with fertilizer yields a root that looks wild. This type of ginseng is called wild-simulated.

While it seems relatively simple to grow ginseng, Mr. Harding explained some of the challenges. Ginseng is susceptible to several fungal diseases, so he regularly treats his crop with fungicide. Wildlife, especially turkeys, can cause extensive damage to ginseng. Turkeys scratch through the straw mulch, looking for insects to eat, and expose the roots which subsequently freeze and die in the winter. Theft is another problem, as wild-simulated ginseng roots can sell for several hundred dollars per pound (dry weight).

Mr. Harding sells his product in several ways: as fresh roots, dry roots, powder (loose and in capsules), and as a wine. He also makes and cans a concentrate from the plant’s berries. Some of what he produces is sold in the states, but much of it is exported to Asia. Ginseng is claimed to boost the immune system, lower blood sugar levels, improve concentration and learning, and treat several medical conditions including high blood pressure and symptoms of menopause. The active ingredients in ginseng – called ginsenosides – are still undergoing clinical research to determine if these claims can be substantiated by science.

Regardless of its clinical effectiveness, ginseng is a unique crop with a market demand, and I was really interested to learn so much about it!



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