American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is a native North American herbaceous plant which has unique chemical properties that make it economically useful. It has a rich history of being collected, cultivated and traded for centuries in Pennsylvania and surrounding areas. The fleshy tuber-like root of the plant is used to make medicine and herbal remedies, and is highly prized in Asian markets. As a result, it is now listed as a Pennsylvania Vulnerable Plant, regulated under DCNR.
Ginseng, sometimes called “sang,” grows wild in rich, cool shady woods in Pennsylvania. Growers use different methods to mimic the natural wooded habitat, with varying degrees of success. This plant is most readily identified during the fruiting stage, when the three or four “prongs” of five leaflets and a cluster of bright red berries are obvious. Ginseng flowers in May and fruits in September-October.
American ginseng is protected and regulated by DCNR and USFWS. DCNR regulates the buying, selling and trading of PA Vulnerable plants. A license is required to export this Non-Timber Forest Product.
American ginseng was recognized as a potentially important trade item shortly after its discovery; by a Jesuit missionary in Canada during 1714.
Accounts by early Pennsylvania explorers, merchants, and map-makers frequently noted the occurrence of ginseng and ginseng collectors. One such example is George Washington who, in his diary of September 1784, noted “In passing over the mountains, I met a number of persons and pack horses going in with ginseng.” The mountains mentioned by Washington were those comprising the Laurel Ridge chain in southwestern Pennsylvania .
Another example, from July 1783, features Bavarian scholar Johann Schöpf who, while traveling through Laurel Hill (somewhere near the border of Somerset and Fayette counties), noted the following:
"A man met us who was taking to Philadelphia some five hundred pounds of ginseng-roots on two horses. He hoped to make a great profit because throughout the [Revolutionary] war little of this article was gathered, and it was now demanded in quantity by certain Frenchmen. The hunters collect it incidentally in their wanderings; in these mountains the plant is still common, but in the lower parts it has pretty well disappeared…..Much is brought into Fort Pitt [Pittsburgh]. Industrious people who went out for the purpose have gathered as much as sixty pounds in one day."
From these and other early commentators, it appears that American ginseng has been heavily harvested during the past 300 years and was likely more common in Pennsylvania in the past. Pressed and dried herbarium specimens establish that ginseng has been found in every county.
The occurrence of ginseng today must be considered in light of the past. Even populations considered native and wild may have originally come from a long-ago planting.