Habit, as we generally use the word, means the custom or practice. With that definition the "Habits of Ginseng" would be what Ginseng usually or naturally did. In revising this chapter, we shall try to confine our remarks to the subject along the line of this definition.
First, we will take the habit of the wild plant. First, its home is in the forest among the trees and many tall and vigorous plants. This is not an acquired habit or one of recent origin. We have a right to suppose that perhaps a million years ago this plant began life under these same conditions and, of course, this habit of growing in the woods is very strongly fixed. Let us look at some of the conditions under which this habit compels Ginseng to live and grow. First, in shade, not absolute, but in the main it is shielded from the direct rays of the sun. It has, however, light and air but the shade, you will bear in mind, is very high up, sometimes not less than seventy-five to one hundred feet from the plants. Again, the shade is not all at one level, some trees are tall and some shorter, some branches a hundred feet high, others close to the ground. This, you see, gives good air circulation as well as shade far better than if all the shade were on one level. Then again, the trees, with their gigantic system of root feeders, cover the whole ground and permeate it in every direction. This you must admit forces the Ginseng plant to live on a scanty supply of food causing it to make very slow growth. Another "habit" is to live to a ripe old age.
Ginseng is rarely found wild in damp places or where stagnant water is near although it is sometimes found very close to running water. While the pond lily may flourish in stagnant water, it is not the habit of Ginseng to use such water and if forced to is made sick by so doing. So we have another hereditary habit of locating on well drained land. Naturally, Ginseng grew in small plots and was not huddled together with acres of its own kind to breed disease and epidemics. The soil, made mellow and porous by the roots of larger plants, gives us a hint of the needs in that direction.
Still another habit that some of our best growers have been determined to overlook is the fact that the real nature home of this plant is not among evergreens but among the maples and beech and basswood trees and these rarely predominate on very sandy soil, so I infer that the habit of this plant is to seek a heavier soil than sand.
While Ginseng increases solely from seed it has the power, after the stalk and bud of the plant has been destroyed, to form another bud; sometimes small pieces of root will do this but it takes usually two or three years' time. If just the bud be destroyed it will form a new bud from July first to late fall and even in the winter, if kept warm, but if it passes over winter it will not form a bud until the next July. Often, for some unknown reason, a wild plant will lie dormant one or two years but this rarely happens in a garden, and I presume it is caused by lack of nourishment.
Different Kinds of Ginseng.
It is not the purpose of this chapter to enter into any botanical or technical description or attempt any learned dissertation but simply and plainly describe the several plants of the immediate Ginseng family.
Our native northern Ginseng differs some from the southern plant in leaf, seed head and seed.
I will first describe the northern branch of the family. The stem of the plant is practically always green. A cluster of buds is visible as soon as the plant breaks ground in the spring and, in fact, this cluster of buds may be found long before the leaves unfold if one looks for it. It is often to be found in the undeveloped bud in the fall. It is rare for a berry to contain more than two seeds. The leaf of the northern plant is thin and inclined to be about the same in shape at either end, that is neither end of the leaf is very much wider than the other end. The seeds weigh about one pound to seven or eight thousand seeds.
The southern Ginseng plant has often a tinge of purple about the stalk and on the lower portions of the leaf stem. The bud, or as it is commonly called, the seed head does not show until several weeks after the plant is in full foliage. The seed heads are generally larger than the northern variety and many of the berries have three seeds each instead of two in the plant from the colder climates. The seed is also much smaller, taking from ten to eleven thousand to make a pound. I believe the southern plant is fully as growthy as the northern and equal quality.
The third variety of Ginseng that seems to be distinct is a native of a few of the western states and its chief difference from the northern is that it is long and slim in all respects. Long slim leaf, long neck on the roots and also long slim roots.
There is also the little round Ginseng that looks very much like a marble. This plant has the leaf and blossom of the Ginseng but the little round roots are of no commercial value. It is possible, that by judicial crossing this variety, the shape of the other or commercial Ginseng could be greatly improved.
These are all of our native Ginsengs that I am familiar with. The Korean and Manchurian, I believe to be the same and only differ as long periods of cultivation has caused the difference. It requires a very close observer to distinguish them from our native stock even when grown side by side and, in fact, cannot, as single plants, be identified from our northern plants but a bed of them can be recognized by their more slender appearance and the very long slender seed stalk. The seed of this variety is also small, running about eleven thousand to the pound, although I have seed direct from Korea, that nearly approached our northern seed for size. The Japanese plant corresponds closely to the Korean and Manchurian in all respects, so far as I can see. It being geographically close to the Chinese varieties and the seed and plant so closely resembling them that I am led to believe they originally were the same.
The seed of these Oriental plants are all corrugated and can easily be told from our seed as you can see by the photo. The upper row of seed is Japanese. The middle row is wild New York seed. The larger or bottom row is cultivated northern seed.
A few years ago Ginseng could be found in nearly every woods and thicket in the country. Today conditions are quite different. Ginseng has become a scarce article.
To what extent the cultivated article in the meantime can supplant the decrease in the production of the wild root, is yet to be demonstrated. The most important points in domesticating the root, to my opinion, is providing shade, a necessary condition for the growth of Ginseng, and to find a fertilizer suitable for the root to produce a rapid growth. If these two conditions can be complied with, proper shade and proper fertilizing, the cultivation of the root is simplified. Now the larger wild roots are found in clay soil and not in rich loam. It seems reasonably certain that the suitable elements for the growth of the root is found in clay soil.
The "seng" digger often finds many roots close to the growing stalk, which had not sent up a shoot that year. For how many years the root may lie dormant is not known, nor is it known whether this is caused by lack of cultivation. I have noticed that the cultivated plant did not fail to sprout for five consecutive years. Whether it will fail the sixth year or the tenth is yet unknown. The seed of Ginseng does not sprout or germinate until the second year, when a slender stalk with two or three leaves puts in an appearance. Then as the stalk increases in size from year to year, it finally becomes quite a sizeable shrub of one main stalk, from which branch three, four, or even more prongs; the three and four prongs being more common. A stalk of "seng" with eight well arranged prongs, four of which were vertically placed over four others, was found in this section (Southern Ohio) some years ago. This was quite an oddity in the general arrangement of the plant.
Ginseng is a plant found growing wild in the deep shaded forests and on the hillsides throughout the United States and Canada. Less than a score of years ago Ginseng was looked upon as a plant that could not be cultivated, but today we find it is successfully grown in many states. It is surprising what rapid improvements have been made in this valuable root under cultivation. The average cultivated root now of three or four years of age, will outweigh the average wild root of thirty or forty years.
When my brother and I embarked in the enterprise, writes one of the pioneers in the business, of raising Ginseng, we thought it would take twenty years to mature a crop instead of three or four as we are doing today. At that time we knew of no other person growing it and from then until the present time we have continually experimented, turning failures to success. We have worked from darkness to light, so to speak.
In the forests of Central New York, the plant is most abundant on hillsides sloping north and cast, and in limestone soils where basswood or butternut predominate. Like all root crops, Ginseng delights in a light, loose soil, with a porous subsoil.
If a cultivated plant from some of our oldest grown seed and a wild one be set side by side without shading, the cultivated one will stand three times as long as the wild one before succumbing to excessive sunlight. If a germinated seed from a cultivated plant were placed side by side under our best mode of cultivation, the plant of the cultivated seed at the end of five years, would no only be heavier in the root but would also produce more seed.
In choosing a location for a Ginseng garden, remember the most favorable conditions for the plant or seed bed are a rich loamy soil, as you will notice in the home of the wild plant. You will not find it on low, wet ground or where the water stands any length of time, it won't grow with wet feet; it wants well drained soil. A first-class location is on land that slopes to the east or north, and on ground that is level and good. Other slopes are all right, but not as good as the first mentioned. It does not do so well under trees, as the roots and fibers from them draw the moisture from the plant and retard its growth.
The variety of soil is so much different in the United States that it is a hard matter to give instructions that would be correct for all places. The best is land of a sandy loam, as I have mentioned before. Clay land can be used and will make good gardens by mixing leaf mold, rotten wood and leaves and some lighter soil, pulverize and work it thru thoroughly. Pick out all sticks and stones that would interfere with the plants.
Ginseng is a most peculiar plant. It has held a place of high esteem among the Chinese from time immemorial. It hides away from man with seeming intelligence. It is shy of cultivation, the seed germinating in eighteen months as a rule, from the time of ripening and planting. If the seeds become dry they lose, to a certain extent, their germinating power.
The young plant is very weak and of remarkably slow growth. It thrives only in virgin soil, and is very choice in its selection of a place to grow. Remove the soil to another place or cultivate it in any way and it loses its charm for producing this most fastidious plant.
It has a record upon which it keeps its age, or years of its growth, for it passes a great many years in the ground, dormant. I have counted the age upon the record stem of small roots and found their age to be from 30 to 60 years. No plant with which I am acquainted grows as slowly as Ginseng.
A great many superstitious notions are held by the people, generally, in regard to Ginseng. I think it is these natural peculiarities of the plant, together with the fancied resemblance of the root to man, and, also probably its aromatic odor that gives it its charm and value. Destroy it from the earth and the Materia Medica of civilization would lose nothing.
I notice that the cultivated root is not so high in price by some two dollars as the wild root. If the root is grown in natural environment and by natural cultivation, i. e., just let it grow, no Chinaman can tell it from the wild root.
We have at present, writes a grower, in our Ginseng patch about 3,500 plants and will this year get quite a lot of excellent seed. Our Ginseng garden is on a flat or bench on a north hillside near the top, that was never cleared. The soil is a sandy loam and in exposure and quality naturally adapted to the growth of this plant. The natural growth of timber is walnut, both black and white, oak, red bud, dogwood, sugar, maple, lin, poplar and some other varieties.
We cultivate by letting the leaves from the trees drop down upon the bed in the fall as a mulch and then in the early spring we burn the leaves off the bed. Our plants seem to like this treatment very well. They are of that good Ginseng color which all Ginseng diggers recognize as indicative of good sized, healthy roots.
I have had much experience in hunting the wild Ginseng roots, says another, and have been a close observer of its habits, conditions, etc. High shade is best with about one-half sun. The root is found mostly where there is good ventilation and drainage. A sandy porous loam produces best roots. Plants in dense shade fail to produce seed in proportion to the density of the shade. In high one-half shade they produce heavy crops of seed. Coarse leaves that hold water will cause disease in rainy seasons. No leaves or mulch make stalks too low and stunted.
Ginseng is very wise and knows its own age. This age the plant shows in two ways. First, by the style of the foliage which changes each year until it is four years old. Second, the age can be determined by counting the scars on the neck of the bud-stem. Each year the stalk which carries the leaves and berries, goes down, leaving a scar on the neck or perennial root from which it grew. A new bud forms opposite and a little above the old one each year. Counting these stalk scars will give the age of the plant
I have seen some very old roots and have been told that roots with fifty scars have been dug. The leaf on a seedling is formed of three small parts on a stem, growing directly out of a perennial root and during the first year it remains that shape. The second year the stem forks at the top and each fork bears two leaves, each being formed of five parts. The third year the stem forks three ways and bears three leaves, each formed of five parts, much like the Virginia creeper.
Now the plant begins to show signs of bearing seed and a small button-shaped cluster of green berries can be seen growing in the forks of the stalk at the base of the leaf stem. The fourth year the perennial stalk grows as large around as an ordinary lead pencil and from one foot to twenty inches high. It branches four ways, and has four beautiful five-pointed leaves, with a large well-formed cluster of berries in the center. After the middle of June a pale green blossom forms on the top of each berry. The berries grow as large as a cherry pit and contain two or three flat hard seeds. In September they turn a beautiful red and are very attractive to birds and squirrels. They may be gathered each day as they ripen and should be planted directly in a bed, or put in a box of damp, clean sand and safely stored. If put directly in the ground they will sprout the first year, which advantage would be lost if stored dry.
Ginseng and Other Medicinal Plants, 1936, was written by A. R. Harding.