Ginseng, Goldenseal, and Other Native Roots
Horticulture Technical Note
Katherine L. Adam
NCAT Agriculture Specialist
© NCAT 2004
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) growing in the Ozark Mountains.
Photo by: Katherine Adam
Native U.S. ginseng (and related species), goldenseal, and other medicinal roots are exported or used domestically in products regulated by the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. Most such crops are raised under contract by experienced growers. Some roots are organically raised. Since 2002 U.S. federal law has reserved the commercial term "ginseng" for Panax species.
Table of Contents
- Panax Relatives
- Black Cohosh
- Blue Cohosh
- Further Resources
America has exported native ginseng to the Orient for almost 300 years. Ginseng shares with several other woodland species of eastern North America (among them goldenseal, black cohosh, and blue cohosh) the distinction of having close relatives in eastern Asia that are recognized as medicinal plants in the Chinese pharmacopoeia.(1) Ginseng of the family Araliaceae, goldenseal and black cohosh of Ranunculaceae, and blue cohosh of Berberidaceae are all commercially traded on world botanicals markets. Other plants in the family Araliaceae—including native sarsaparilla and imported Eleutherococcus ("Siberian ginseng")—have found favor with dietary supplement manufacturers because of their ginseng association. Since 1998, the market for medicinal herbs has declined precipitously, down 12% in 1999, another 15% in 2000, and a further 21% in 2001.(2) According to the latest figures for the 52 weeks ending January 4, 2004, both dollar and unit sales of ginseng were down approximately 24% in 2003. A larger majority of herbal subcategories, including ginseng, experienced sales declines in 2003, compared with declines in 2002. Black cohosh root was the exception, with sales growing 27.4% in 2002 and 26.2% in 2003.(3)
Until recently, trade in plant species native to North America was almost entirely supplied by wild-gathering. Now, encouraging farm production is part of a concerted effort by conservation groups, as well as government agencies, to preserve remnant wild populations of rare native plants, while accommodating the demand for raw materials by the dietary supplement industry. On August 13, 1999, new U.S. Fish & Wildlife export restrictions on wild and "wild-simulated" ginseng roots went into effect. The purpose of the new regulations is to ensure that ginseng plants are not harvested prematurely (before seed production). State permits to harvest wild ginseng customarily require mature seeds to be left in the hole from which the root is dug.
New growers will not find published production budgets for most native roots, because existing growers consider such information a trade secret. Production budgets for the three common methods of raising ginseng (shade-cloth, woods-grown, and wild-simulated) that were published by Miller (1985) and Hankins (1999) are now out of date. Hankins identified wild-simulated as the best method for American ginseng growers, because of lower production costs and maximum returns.
Raising a trial crop first is very good advice. Medicinal root crops are perennials (rather than annuals like grains) and, once established, typically take three to five years before they are ready to harvest. Propagation from seed, generally not recommended, is complex and time-consuming, requiring specialized facilities such as greenhouses and labs. Harvest requirements often lead American growers to build or modify specialized equipment, and on-farm drying facilities are usually necessary for root crop production. Security is the first concern of ginseng growers, because secluded ginseng patches are often the targets of thieves—especially as the ginseng nears maturity.
The herbal industry has consolidated rapidly in the past five years and moved production out of the U.S. Only a few niches are filled by independent growers.
Ginseng (Panax species)
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium L.) is a fleshy-rooted deciduous perennial native to cool and shady hardwood forests of North America, ranging from Quebec south to northern Florida and west to Arkansas. In the past decade ginseng has become increasingly scarce in its native habitat. When prices for wild American ginseng sky-rocketed in 1996, secluded stands were quickly overrun by root hunters.
Asia imports both wild-harvested and cultivated American ginseng. In 1997 the U.S. legally exported 527,547 pounds of cultivated ginseng roots and 22,929 pounds of wild roots.(4) In 1998 Wisconsin alone produced almost 2 million pounds, but production in 1999 in that state fell to 1 million pounds (almost all for export), while Canadian production rose to a total of 4,615,000 pounds.(5) Since 1999 U.S. export production has plummeted.
Differences between Panax quinquefolium L. and Panax ginseng L. (Asian ginseng) are based on consumer perceptions, uses in traditional Chinese medicine (one is classified as "cool," the other as "hot"), and marketing strategies, rather than pharmacological studies using Western methodology. Asian consumers have a distinct preference for wild, rather than cultivated, ginseng—of whatever Panax species. U.S. consumers have a decided preference for convenience and do not make distinctions among products based on species, production methods, or origins—as long as the label says "ginseng." Chinese customers get such phytomedicines from traditional healers; Americans buy them in capsules from the shelves of chain stores. The potential size of the American market for P. quinquifolium in unprocessed form is unknown, but is probably small. American consumers tend to shop on price alone and prefer easy-to-use capsules and lozenges. It is questionable whether U.S. consumer preferences can be shifted much to favor unprocessed forms of ginseng supplied by local growers.
Since wild forms of ginseng are rare in Asia, wild (or "wild-simulated") P. quinquefolium from the U.S. is highly marketable there. Extension Specialty Crops Specialist Andy Hankins (6), who visited China in 1999, found perfect "hands" of U.S. ginseng being used as expensive gifts; he recommended that U.S. exporters pay more attention to protecting the "hands" from damage in shipment, rather than just shipping them in barrels as a commodity. (A "hand" is a complete, unbroken ginseng root with its branches resembling human body parts.) Hankins developed and published one of the few production budgets for various methods of producing ginseng in the U.S.(6)
|Prices for cultivated ginseng depend on how closely the production simulates the growing conditions of wild ginseng.|
In keeping with his 1997 prediction that Chinese production of American ginseng would make China self-sufficient in farm-raised grades by the year 2000 (7), Hankins reported in May 2000 that cultivated American ginseng is now imported via San Francisco from China.(8) Manufacturers of ginseng preparations marketed in the U.S. prefer to use cheaper grades of imported Asian ginseng (P. ginseng), and now American ginseng ( P. quinquifolium). The cheaper grades of both species are those produced quickly under shadecloth.
Hong Kong's becoming part of The People's Republic of China in 1998 has complicated U.S. access to the Chinese market for ginseng. Hankins reports (8) that the main problem is getting paid. There is no recourse if a deal goes sour. Demand in other Asian countries is locally or regionally met. Asian dealers now want only wild or "wild-simulated" U.S. ginseng, easily identified by an experienced botanicals dealer. This product is customarily marketed through private networks. Wild and wild-simulated ginsengs come from natural woods in the Appalachian mountain ranges of the eastern U.S. (parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia). A small amount comes from similar terrain in the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks. Contrary to a common misconception, marketable ginseng is not produced by alley cropping or agroforestry plantation methods, except in very small amounts in the Pacific Northwest for local use. The sustainability of continued or increased wild harvest is questionable. As a result of these market factors, many former commercial ginseng growers in the U.S. and Canada have switched to other medicinal root crops or quit entirely.
The United States monitors all trade in ginseng, whether wild or cultivated, within its borders and for export. All dealers or ginseng growers are required to register with the regulatory agency in their state. There are also state regulations on collecting ginseng seed from wild stands. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (9) can provide a list of state agencies that regulate ginseng.
Historically, more than 95% of commercial ginseng grown in the U.S. for export to Asia has been cultivated under shadecloth in Marathon County, Wisconsin. Now countries such as Canada, New Zealand, Australia (in Tasmania), Ecuador, and Chile, as well as China, have developed the capacity to compete for local and Pacific Rim markets.
Diseases of ginseng include root rot (early blight) and Alternaria panax (ginseng blight). According to Hankins (10), intensively cultivated plants are highly susceptible to ginseng blight. In fact, disease problems associated with shadehouse-grown ginseng are so devastating that using fungicides to save an otherwise organically grown crop near the end of its multi-year cycle is a common industry practice. Wild ginseng plants are rarely affected. The greatest danger for wild-simulated ginseng growers and for caretakers of wild patches is not disease but human theft.
Many companies can supply seed or plants for propagation. It may be best, however, to obtain healthy rootlets and raise one's own seed crop to avoid diseases.(11) State regulations on harvesting seed from wild stands must be observed.
In 2002 the long-running Panax listserve for commercial ginseng growers ceased operations when its moderator retired. See Web Resources, below, for currently available information on the Internet. A USDA bulletin on ginseng culture, published in 1928, is now available on the Internet.
Other species in the same family as ginseng include Eleutherococcus senticosus Maxim., an aggressive 9-foot-tall woody shrub native to Siberia (formerly marketed in the U.S. as a dietary supplement and weight-loss remedy); Devil's club (Oplopanax horridus Miq.), native to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska; and sarsaparilla (Aralia L. spp.), native to North America (particularly the southeastern U.S.). None of these are recognized in the Chinese pharmacopoeia as "-seng." The 2002 U.S. Farm Bill prohibits marketing any non-Panax species as "ginseng"; the status of all dietary supplements is under review by the National Organic Program.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis L.), a member of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), has approximately the same native range and environmental requirements as ginseng (moist woodlands of the eastern U.S.). A perennial, goldenseal has an erect hairy stem that grows to about a foot in height, with three or four yellowish scales at the base of the plant. The rhizome (a root-like underground stem), the part used for medicinal purposes, is the principal source of revenue, though the leaves are also gathered and marketed.
Goldenseal is threatened with extinction over much of its natural range (12, 13), and many states have passed regulations to discourage wild collecting. Goldenseal is a major focus of the privately-funded United Plant Savers (UpS) (14), which sponsors botanical sanctuaries and other native plant conservation efforts.
A report on the first comprehensive study of goldenseal cultivation, conducted by a Canadian research team, appeared in 2001.(15) A 1994 study by Dr. Jeanine Davis (16), North Carolina State University Extension, on methods for accelerating production of plants from rootlets rather than seed or root division, gave mixed results. Dr. Davis has also studied goldenseal diseases. Mulch studies on goldenseal have shown better stands and fewer diseases with sawdust, especially composted sawdust, than with straw mulch. Straw mulch promoted slugs, according to studies in both North Carolina and Washington State.(17)
Goldenseal has been marketed as an immune system stimulant. Cheaper substitutes for goldenseal are now on the market. The notion that it masks drug-use tests, while unfounded, has undoubtedly contributed to its marketability.
Much of the information in the USDA bulletin Goldenseal Under Cultivation, published in 1949, applies to ginseng as well. This publication has especially useful suggestions on organically acceptable fertility management. See Further Resources below.
Although reliable information about the yield growers of goldenseal (in 1949) reported dry root yields of 2,000 pounds per acre at 5 years from seed. Yields of 1,000 to 2,500 pounds of dried goldenseal root per acre(at 3 to 5 years)have been reported for goldenseal under intensive cultivation.(17) Like ginseng, cultivated goldenseal is subject to increased disease pressures.(18)
Prices for goldenseal fluctuate, depending on supply and demand. Since plants started from seed take about five years to reach harvestable stage, predicting future returns on investment is difficult. Several sources for goldenseal rhizomes are provided below. After initial establishment, goldenseal roots and seeds can be saved for propagating new beds.
A medicinal root herb in the same family as goldenseal is black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa Elliot). Steven Foster describes black cohosh in Herbal Renaissance (19) as a Native American remedy used in tincture form for female problems and as an aid in childbirth.
Universities have just begun research on black cohosh as an agricultural enterprise. Purdue University, which earlier pioneered much new-crops research, has closed its New Crops Center, but maintains a medicinal herb "demonstration plot" that includes black cohosh.
The University of Kentucky's New Crop Opportunities Center, headed by R. Terry Jones (20), Department of Horticulture, is currently assessing the potential of a number of Kentucky wildflowers for commercial floral crop production.(21) Black cohosh is included in a study of "native plant and underutilized landscape plant species" at one of its research stations. Jones has published a useful guide to seed and root sources for black cohosh (as well as blue cohosh, ginseng, and goldenseal) for Kentucky growers, as well as other Web resources.
A major horticultural study on black cohosh began in 2001, under the auspices of the Center for Phytonutrient and Phytochemical Studies (a research consortium of the University of Missouri—Columbia and the Missouri Botanical Garden), funded by a substantial grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The name of the study is "Identification and Characterization of Botanicals." Research sites include the Missouri Botanical Gardens, St. Louis; Southwest Research Center, Mt. Vernon; and the Shaw Nature Reserve, Gray Summit. The initial experiment is to answer questions about when, how much, and under what conditions (including stress) the herb produces certain phytochemicals (the "active principles"). For current information, see their Web site , or contact the Center.(22)
While the University of Kentucky material notes that Black Cohosh seed is very difficult to germinate and must be absolutely fresh (23), and I have found it of intermediate difficulty, Foster considers it easy to propagate and grow:
...given a moderately rich, somewhat-moist, shady situation. Propagation is achieved by sowing seeds in a well-prepared seedbed as soon as ripe in autumn for germination the following spring, or by division of the roots in early spring or autumn, after the leaves begin to fade. Plants should be given two-foot spacings. Black Cohosh thrives under cultivation in lightly shaded conditions and is adaptable to relatively poor, acidic, rocky woodland soils. The plant does best, however, in a relatively rich, moist woodland soil. Average weight of the matted roots is four to eight ounces. No information on yields is available, but . . . [might be] about 3,000 pounds per acre.(19)
As with many native perennial seeds, germination rates may be quite low. Seed sources compiled by the University of Kentucky are listed below. Richard A. Miller advises sun-curing the split roots, which are then cut and sifted.(24)
Sales of blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides L. Michx.), another root with traditional medicinal uses, are currently very small, but increasing. Practically no scientific research has been done on this species. Regarding culture, Foster notes:
Blue cohosh can be propagated by seeds or root division. The seeds can be planted in midsummer as soon as the blueberry-like fruits ripen. Fall division of the root stocks is also a good means of propagation. Plants grown from seed will have to be in the ground for up to five years before the roots can be harvested. (19)
This plant likes a humus-rich soil in deciduous forests with a pH of 4.5 to 7 (acid to neutral). It seems to like at least 75 percent shade, and can be grown in a similar habitat as ginseng and goldenseal. Blue cohosh is not subject to pests and requires a minimum of care.(23)
Unless fresh seed is planted in the fall, seed germination rates may be quite low. Seed sources include Richters, Johnny's, and Horizon Herbs (see below). Miller advises sun-curing the split roots, which are then cut and sifted.(24)
Pioneers of herbal medicines envisioned a health care system with experienced herbal practitioners prescribing holistic courses of treatment. The actuality took a decidedly different turn when medicinal herb producers found themselves competing on the world botanicals market to provide raw materials for mass-marketed products. Inadequate basic research on production (including improved cultivars) hampered new growers.(25) Mark Wheeler of Pacific Botanicals (26) noted in 2000 the accelerated trend toward contract farming, even as new legislation curbed wild harvesting. With uncertain markets, it is now highly doubtful whether even experienced farmers should make medicinal herb crops a significant part of their production.
1) Foster, Steven. 1986. East-West Botanicals: Comparisons of Medicinal Plants Disjunct Between Eastern Asia and Eastern North America. Ozark Beneficial Plant Project, New Life Farm, Inc., Drury, MO. 37 p.
2) Tyler, Varro E. 2002. Herbal medicine at the crossroads: The challenge of the 21st century. HerbalGram #54. p. 52, 65. [Edited transcript of presentation to NutraCon Conference, San Diego, CA, 7/10/2001, by the late Dr. Tyler. Statistics from Information Resources, Inc., HerbalGram #51, 2001. The corresponding figures for total herb sales for the week ending January 4, 2002, were published in HerbalGram #55, Chart, p. 60.]
3) Information Resources Inc. 2004. Chart: Total herbal supplement category & subcategories—Total U.S. FDM (Supermarkets + Drug Stores + Mass Merchandisers except Wal-Mart), 52 weeks ending January 4, 2004. Natural Foods Merchandiser. June. p. 50.
5) Makuch, Joe. 1999. Correction to earlier post on ginseng [yield data]. Enviro-news listserve. August 18. p.1
20) R. Terry Jones
New Crops Opportunities Center
Department of Horticulture
University of Kentucky Robinson Station
130 Robinson Road
Jackson, KY 41339-9081
859-257-9511, ext. 234
21) University of Kentucky
23) Horticulture Department, University of Kentucky. 2001. Kentucky Garden Flowers: Cimicifuga racemosa—Black Snakeroot, Black Cohosh, Bugbane. Downloaded August 6, 2004. p. 4.
25) See Considerations for Organic Herb Production, www.attra.ncat.org/horticultural.html, for discussion of SARE-funded herb research, especially LNE97-092 (Chinese Medicinal Herbs as Crops for the Northeast, Lyle Craker et al.). For complete reports, see www.sare.org.
26) Matheson, Nancy. 2000. ATTRA Trip Report [Great Northern Botanicals Association annual meeting, March 25– 26]. email@example.com . p. 2.
Carroll, Chjip. 2004. Making progress on ginseng poaching. The Grapevine Newsletter (Rural Action Forestry). Fall. p. 1–2.
Dharmananda, Subhuti. 2002. The nature of ginseng: Traditional use, modern research, and the question of dosage. HerbalGram. No. 54. p. 34-51.
Flaster, Trish, and Jim Lassiter. 2004. Quality control in herbal preparations: Using botanical reference standards for proper identification. HerbalGram. No. 63. p. 32–37.
Hankins, Anthony. 1997. "Wild-simulated" Forest Farming for Ginseng Production. Excerpted from The Temperate Agroforester (1/97). 3 p.
Konaler, T.R. 1983. Ginseng: A Production Guide for North Carolina. Cooperative Extensive Service, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC. 15 p.
Persons, W. Scott. 1994. Growing American ginseng in its native woodland habitat. p. 32–38. In: Proceedings of Herbs '94, Ninth Annual Meeting of the International Herb Association. IHA, Mundelein, IL.
Persons, W. Scott. 1988. American Ginseng: Green Gold. Exposition Press of Florida, Inc., Pompano Beach, FL. 172 p.
Sason, R.R., and K.J. Dailey (eds.). 1995. A Consumer's Guide to Ginseng. New York State Ginseng Association, Roxbury, NY. 24 p. Available for $5.00 from NY State Ginseng Assn., P.O. Box 127, Roxbury, NY 12474.
Scott, John A., Jr., Sam Rogers, and David Cooke. 1997. Woods-grown ginseng. West Virginia Extension. 10 p. www.wvu.edu/~agexten/forestry/ginseng.htm
USDA. 1928. Ginseng Culture. Farmers Bull. No. 1184. 13 p.
Sason, R.R., and K.J. Dailey (ed.). 1995. A Consumer's Guide to Ginseng. New York State Ginseng Association, Roxbury, NY. 24 p.
Available for $5.00 from NY State Ginseng Assn., P.O. Box 127, Roxbury, NY 12474.
Davis, Jeanine. 1996. Advances in Goldenseal Cultivation. North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service Leaflet 131. North Carolina State University, Raleigh. 5 p.
Foster, Steven. 1993. Goldenseal. Herbal Renaissance: Growing, Using and Understanding Herbs in the Modern World. [Rev. ed. Herbal Bounty, 1984.] Gibbs-Smith Publisher, Peregrine Smith Books, Salt Lake City. p. 102-106.
USDA. 1949. Goldenseal under Cultivation. Farmers' Bull. No. 613 (revised). 14 p.
Baskin, J.M., and C.C. Baskin. 1985. Epicotyl dormancy in seeds of Cimicifuga racemosa and Hepatica acutiloba. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club (Bronx, NY). July-September. Vol. 112, No. 3. p. 253-257.
Thomas, Andrew L. 2002. Southwest Center Launches Medicinal Herb Research on black cohosh. Southwest Center [MO] Ruminations. Jan.-Mar. p. 2-3.
Hannan, G.L., and H.A. Prucher. 1996. Reproductive biology of Caulophyllum thalictroides (Berberidaceae), an early flowering perennial of eastern North America. American Midlands Naturalist. Vol. 136, No. 2. p. 267-277.
Sources of propagation materials
For an assessment of customer satisfaction with seed/plant suppliers, see the Web site http://gardenwatchdog.com. 800-846-7359
(numbers in table correspond to the Seed Companies listed below)
7. Elixir Farm Botanicals
Brixey, MO 65618
Biodynamically certified organic seed of native and Chinese medicinal herbs.
11. Horizon Herbs
P.O. Box 69
Williams, OR 97544
Horizon Herbs publications include titles on Mediterranean herbs, echinacea, Chinese herbs, burdock, St. Johnswort, English herbs, and milk thistle. May be purchased separately or as a set. Credit cards accepted.
12. Hsu's Ginseng Enterprises
16819 Co. Hwy. W.,
P.O. Box 509
Wausau, WI 54402-0509
13. Jelitto Perennial Seeds
125 Chenoweth Lane,
Louisville, KY 40207
15. Lake's Botanicals
2029 Poindexter Road,
Cynthiana, KY 41031
No catalog; fall delivery only.
17. Red River Ginseng
220 Neff Road,
Hazel Green, KY 41332
19. Sandy Mush Herb Nursery
316 Surrett Cove Road
Leicester, NC 28748-5517
Craker, Lyle E., and Jean Giblette. 2002. Chinese medicinal herbs: Opportunities for domestic production. p. 491–496. In: J. Janick and A Whipkey (ed.). Trends in new crops and new uses. ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.
North Carolina State University Extension factsheets on ginseng and goldenseal
Natural Foods Merchandiser
Can provide up-to-date marketing statistics for herb crops for $200/yr. access fee.
Richters information on growing herbs
The Herb Growing and Marketing Network
University of Kentucky Extension factsheet on medicinal herbs
By Katherine L. Adam
NCAT Agriculture Specialist
Edited by Paul Williams
Formatted by Jenn Vieth
Copyright © 2004
National Center for Appropriate Technology
This page was last updated on: August 28, 2014