General Site Characteristics
Not all land can grow ginseng. The simplest way to determine if any portions of your site will grow ginseng is to seek out areas that are growing ginseng or recall whether any areas on the land grew ginseng in the past. Likewise you may wish to look for so-called companion plants, such as Jack-in-the-pulpit, bloodroot, Solomon's seal, wild ginger, wild yam, ferns, blue cohosh, trillium, sarsparilla, black cohosh or goldenseal and see whether they can be found. You may be able to find other good pictorial guidebooks to wildflowers to other states and regions in bookstores near you. Companion plants are frequently found living in the same conditions that ginseng grows in, and often grow nearby. If these areas are found you should also note the soil and its moisture content, the extent of the tree canopy, the nutrient levels in the soil and the "lay" of the land (the degree of slope and drainage). In other words it is not a single factor that makes for good ginseng-growing but rather a combination of factors. The better you understand the impact of these factors, the greater the chance that you will have success in growing wild-simulated ginseng.
It should be noted that there are exceptions to the rules. Ginseng is a rather hearty plant that can grow where one or more minor factors are missing. Landholders who attempt to grow ginseng in areas where natural conditions will not support the plant often attempt to compensate by creating dense beds of expensive, prepared soil, often with the assistance of heavy doses of fungicides. Not only is this costly, it can often result in a less valuable ginseng root than wild simulated ginseng roots. Some growers have only partial conditions and compensate by growing woods grown or simulated ginseng in rather dense beds of prepared soil and often with the assistance of fungicides. We do not favor these conditions for we seek organic growers of ginseng and preferably those who can grow the crop in the virtual wild condition.
Even when ginseng is not found, your property may still be capable of growing it. A careful examination of topographic maps, water drainage maps and soil maps in a manual overlay fashion is a good gauge of where ginseng is likely to grow. Syl Yunker, a long-term ginseng grower, claims success nine out of ten times using this method. The more one knows about the necessary conditions for ginseng growth (as well as the minor, more subtle requirements for ginseng), the more readily one can locate a place for growing the ginseng. Modern computer technology can also help you locate a good site. The last part of this section explains an ASPI service that will help growers locate better sites via computer technology.
Soil and Nutrients
The best kind of soil is well-drained, rich dark soil, with sufficient humus content. Look for loamy soil that is high in wood content ("blocky" soil). Soils with heavy clay composition should be avoided. While most ginseng growing soils are slightly on the acidic side, the pH ranges permissible for ginseng growing are quite wide. It is believed that ginseng does best in soils between pH 5.5 and pH 6.0, although a recent study found ginseng doing well under highly acidic (low pH) conditions when there were very high levels of calcium.
On ideal ginseng growing sites, soil should be slightly on the acidic side but limestone-based with relatively high calcium and a preferred calcium/magnesium ratio of five to one. Soil maps, topographic maps and companion plants give the ginseng grower a good idea of where ginseng may grow best. You can augment this through a soil analysis done by your local county extension office or by state agricultural laboratories. These services are usually conducted for a nominal fee or free of charge.
Ginseng also grows remarkably well when surrounded by a healthy layer of leaf litter. The wild simulated ginseng grower can build up this leaf litter during the growing process. The litter should be intermixed with twigs to keep it airy, but ginseng will often thrive in heavier litter, too. The grower is advised to reduce the amount that washes or blows away by laying dead fall, twigs and small branches ten to twelve feet apart in a terrace formation running along with the contours of the hill. Leaves accumulate behind these natural barriers and create the "beds" in which the wild ginseng will thrive in a few years.
While one could discover through topographic and soil maps the approximate best locations for ginseng, a more thorough knowledge of the soil nutrient content will (as with most other crops) require a chemical analysis. As mentioned below, it is possible to continue the organic certification which is preferred for virtually wild ginseng and yet add certain natural amendments to the soil such as gypsum (hydrated calcium sulfate) for enhancing the calcium content or Epsom salts (hydrated magnesium sulfate) for raising the magnesium content. While nutrient balance is highly important for growing healthy ginseng, the best approach is to locate the best sites first and carefully target your ginseng planting to those sites, rather than adjusting soil on sub-standard sites.
Canopy and Air Flow
Ginseng grows best in a rich, shady forest with reasonably open lower layers. Thus a forest with a canopy of high trees and a rich ground cover of herbs and wildflowers is ideal, but not one with an under- or mid-story of densely growing plants like cedars and briars, which slow ginseng growth. The over-story should provide 70-80% shade, giving the forest a very obvious dappled effect. Look for the "soft hardwoods," trees that show their fall colors earliest. Another way to identify the "soft hardwoods," is to look for kinds of trees that leaf-out earlier than oaks in the spring and lose their leaves before the oaks in the fall, like maples, tulip trees, ash and hackberry. A modest number of cedars is also a good sign, because they are indicators of limestone soil. Most pines, except scattered white pines, should be avoided. Remember that the 70-80% shade rule is not a hard and fast rule across the forest. Small gaps in the canopy occur whenever trees fall, but ginseng survives in most cases: the excess sunlight merely retards ginseng growth for a few years while the canopy is open, then resumes at its normal growth rate as the canopy begins to fill in.
Grade and Aspect
Grade and aspect also have a bearing on where this cool, rich forest dwelling plant can grow. Wild ginseng is known to grow in a variety of places from extremely steep slopes to near level conditions. Regardless of the grade, it is important that the site be well drained so that excessive moisture does not accumulate. Avoid very dry sites and soggy bottomlands, and try to identify rich, well-drained sites with conditions in between the extremes. For the wild simulated ginseng grower in most parts of the Appalachians, a gentle, 40% percent slope is ideal, both for ease of walking and for adequate drainage.
The aspect or geographical orientation of the slope is important, too. Aspect becomes all the more important as one gets into the hotter climes of the southern U.S. In the most of the central and southern Appalachians, growers should plant on north- and northeast-facing slopes and avoid hotter south- and southwest-facing slopes. But in cool regions of Canada, northern New England, and even in the higher elevations of the Appalachians, ginseng can grow on slopes that receive more sun.
Ginseng prefers ample moisture and cool conditions and this, too, depends on where one lives. Experts suggest that areas with 50 below-freezing days a year are at the southernmost ginseng growing zone.
Determining Sites Electronically
Many of the site conditions needed to grow ginseng can be identified beforehand by creating an overlay of topographical, soil and other maps. In fact, the manual overlay method can quite accurately pinpoint areas where soil type, grade, shady slopes, and identified forest cover indicate that conditions will support ginseng growth. A more convenient method is to use the combination of a Global Positioning System (GPS) and a Geographic Information System (GIS). While both methods have been developed fairly recently, each has found widespread use in other site selection operations.
GIS is a computer mapping system. The major advantage is that it can map areas more conveniently and more precisely than hand overlays. GIS compiles maps with data drawn from existing sources of information like government soil map data. Available data from different sources can already be pulled together to help locate good choices to place a ginseng patch. Some states have now made the data available free for the taking whereas others have not yet prepared it or require a modest to sizeable payment for use in its current format. Data being used includes: topographic maps with proper elevation data, soil data, water flow data and 3-D modeling software to simulate the rising and setting of the sun to help determine the sunny and shady spots on potential ginseng growing areas.
A GPS device is essentially a radio that helps locate 'where you are' and 'how to get' to a preselected place. The United States military services developed this system during the Vietnam War to track themselves on land, sea or in the air and has since declassified the GPS so that now anybody in the world can use this system. The GPS is a handheld device that can be purchased from Radio Shack and most electronics stores for less than a hundred dollars. The GPS radio is a receiver just like an AM or FM radio, except that it picks up timing signals from two dozen NAVSTAR GPS satellites that orbit twelve thousand miles above our planet. These satellites constantly transmit their position and the exact time in orbit. The GPS receivers listen in on the information from three or more of the satellites and through triangulation of the signals sent can determine speed, direction, elevation, and the exact position of the receiver.
Ginseng often grows best in deep woods, an advantage that can be used to help protect the plant and the grower from poaching. This is good for security, but makes plants harder to locate the following year. By using a GPS unit, one can mark a trail that only the grower can follow. Or the GPS device can help a potential wild simulated ginseng grower catalog exactly where ginseng plants, companion plants, or suitable growing areas exist on a large acreage or isolated and unfamiliar areas, so that he or she can return to the precise site to sow seeds. Later one needs only punch in the marker numbers for the trail and the exact patch. A GPS receiver can tell you the direction and the distance to the next marker location. For security, these coordinates need to be recorded in a safe place. Each marker has an accuracy of 30 feet, meaning one is within 30 foot of exact location.