Wild Ginseng Root Anatomy ~ batcavebotanicals.com
Anatomy of a Wild American Ginseng Root
The neck or rhizome is actually an ‘underground stem’, made up of the ‘bud scale scars’ left each year after the yellow top dies back in the fall. The neck is sometimes referred to as ‘the twirl’ because the scars are always 90 degrees opposite from the previous scar, giving it an interesting ‘spiral’ pattern.
The bud is located at the very top of the neck, and will eventually be the part of the plant you see above ground during the growing season.
The scars are also referred to as ‘bud scale scars’. Each one is where the plant grows it’s top and dies back at the end of the season. A single ‘bud scar’ is produced every fall after the yellow plant stem falls to the ground, so for each year the plant produces a top, there is a scar left on the rhizome.
The root collar is where the neck meets the main root. If counting from bottom to top, This should count as year one, when counting the bud scars. Depending on how many bulbs extend from one neck, there may be more than one root collar.
The main root is considered a ‘fleshy taproot’ and operates as the nutrient storage & absorption organ for the ginseng plant. This is the most valued part of the plant for medicinal purposes.
The tail roots & fiber roots are the small roots that branch out from the main root. These serve as support, moisture & feeding roots, and help the entire plant function in it’s often harsh environment.
AMERICAN GINSENG: 101
Wild American Ginseng is a highly prized & sought after crop in markets around the world. It has been culturally important for it’s value as a medicinal herb for centuries. Wild ginseng is often cherished & appreciated for it’s ‘beauty & wild character’ by those who collect ginseng for consumption or display. Farmed ginseng from the US & Canada is heavily utilized in the worldwide health industry as a key ingredient.
Unlike farmed or ‘cultivated’ roots, wild ginseng grows in rich forest soils often on steep & rocky slopes. In the Southern Appalachians, this rich environment hosts a very unique plant community. Wild ginseng is found along with other rare plants such as maidenhair & rattlesnake ferns, bloodroot, trilliums & goldenseal, along with less ‘friendly’ species like stinging nettles, poison ivy & ferocious briars. This specialized environment causes wild ginseng roots to have a character which reflects these challenging growing conditions.
Wild ginseng roots have certain desirable qualities that ‘farmed’ roots do not possess. Characteristics such as interesting & complex shapes, as well as stress rings & wrinkles create a ‘wild character’ or appearance, which is especially evident with older roots. This results in wild ginseng roots that often possess interesting & bizarre shapes, and sometimes even resembles a human figure. In the wild ginseng market, size is not always the sole indicator of value, as many factors including age, shape, and even ‘beauty’ can contribute to ‘grade’ and overall price on the international market.
Farmed (or cultivated) roots grow in tilled beds with regular applications of fertilizers & amendments, that promotes rapid growth and provides resistance to insects and diseases. This farmed ginseng ‘crop’ is often grown in a very high density artificial environment under shade cloth, and is harvested after only 4 or 5 years. This results in roots that look like quite different and lack the ‘natural characteristics’ of wild ginseng.
There is a ‘middle ground’ however; the beginnings of a ‘woods grown’ or ‘naturally cultivated’ movement have become an important factor in the future of ginseng as a species. These parcels of forest land are used to create an important ‘agroforestry’ or ‘non timber agriculture’ income for landowners & families. The importance of this is to help relieve pressure on the wild harvested roots by providing the international market with another option for this desirable commodity. By growing ginseng in an almost wild environment, it can produce a product that looks & tastes very similar to wild ginseng roots.
Farmed roots have become the mainstay of the international ginseng market, with these ginseng farms producing more than 95% of the world’s annual ginseng crop*. Products like energy drinks & health supplements rely heavily on these farmed ginseng roots for ‘bulk ingredient’. These products are crucial to the international ginseng trade & overall market. Both farm grown & wild ginseng provide the US with a very high value commodity crop for the international market.
*Ginseng Board of Wisconsin