Ginseng Plants & Relativesby Heidi Grover
While ginseng (Panax) is mainly known as a medicinal herb, it also a wild flower that can grow well in your garden and doesn't needs much care. Unlike many wild flowers, it won’t take over your garden or crowd out your other plants. Ginseng is also a great solution to shady areas. You have to be a patient gardener to grow ginseng, though, because it grows slowly.
In the wild, ginseng grows in woodlands and forests. In the garden, it needs moist, loamy soil with good drainage and plenty of shade. It is great for under trees or in areas that don’t get enough sun for most plants. If you want flowers next summer, however, this is not the plant for you. Ginseng seeds can take up to three years to germinate. It takes another three or four years before the plants begin to produce white or greenish-white flowers in the summer, followed by pea-sized red berries. You can purchase plants instead of seed so that you get blooming plants in less time.
Both American ginseng (Panax cinquefolium) and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) are perennial in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 6 to 10. They are cold hardy and do not need mulching or special care to get through the winter. Though native to different continents, the American and Asian varieties look similar. American and Asian ginsengs grow between 2 to 3 feet tall when they are mature.
A colder-weather variety is dwarf ginseng (Panax trifolius), hardy down to USDA zone 3. It is smaller, only reaching 8 inches tall. Dwarf ginseng flowers are similar to those of the larger varieties, but the berries turn yellow rather than red. Dwarf ginseng also blooms in the early spring and will die back in the early summer.
Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) is hardy to USDA zone 4. This ginseng relative is sometimes mistaken for ginseng and grows in similar conditions. It can do well in poor soil as well. Sarsaparilla grows from 18 to 24 inches tall. The greenish-white flowers are similar to ginseng and are followed by dark purple berries in the fall. Unlike ginseng, however, sarsaparilla grows quickly and can be invasive in the garden. The root of another ginseng relative, American Spikenard (Aralia racemosa), was used by pioneers to make root beer. Like ginseng, it grows in moist woods but is more common. The plant has no commercial use today.
Many herbalists claim that wild ginseng is stronger than cultivated ginseng, so wild plants have been overharvested in many areas. Since it grows so slowly, ginseng has a hard time rebounding from overharvesting; wild ginseng has become rare and hard to find in places. Be sure to purchase your ginseng from a supplier that grows ginseng rather than gathering it. Because of overharvesting, many areas require a license to harvest ginseng.
- Unites States Department of Agriculture: American Ginseng Panax quinquefolius L.
- University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources: American Ginseng
- Plants for a Future: Panax ginseng
- The University of Texas at Austin: Aralia nudicaulis L. Wild Sarsaparilla
- University of Minnesota Extension: Identifying Wild Ginseng
- Blue Jean Images/Photodisc/Getty Images