Before I ran for Alice in Dairyland, I had little idea of what ginseng was, how it was grown or what it even looked like. Fast-forward to today; after touring several ginseng operations in Wisconsin, I have discovered how important this small root is to our agriculture community.
Ginseng roots require years and years of care before harvest but have significant economic value after processing. Thanks to the diligence of our ginseng growers, Wisconsin ginseng is in demand around the world. This unique root has a big impact on our state’s economy and truly sets Wisconsin agriculture apart.
Ginseng is a key ingredient used in traditional Chinese medicine and is widely used in Western cultures as a dietary supplement and botanical element. There are two varieties of ginseng grown in the world: Panax quinquefolius (American ginseng) and Panax ginseng (Asian ginseng). The two varieties are opposites, and both can be taken for a health-balancing effect. According to the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin, consumers will take American ginseng for a cooling effect and Asian ginseng for a heating effect.
American Ginseng has been cultivated in Wisconsin for more than 100 years, dating back to the 1800s. Today, Wisconsin ginseng farmers account for 95% of the total cultivated American ginseng produced in the U.S. Wisconsin ginseng farmers outrank every other state not only for quantity of production but also for quality. Around the world, savvy consumers request Wisconsin-grown ginseng. This reputation for the best-quality ginseng is thanks to the highly desired bittersweet taste of our roots.
Growing ginseng requires years of diligent observation and care. Ginseng roots begin as seeds, harvested in September by hand from existing plants. These seeds then sit in a cooler throughout the fall and winter to dry out.
In the spring, the seeds are warmed up and ready for planting in the summer months. Planting must be done in virgin soil, where ginseng roots have never grown. An unexplained phenomenon prevents ginseng from ever being able to grow on the same plot of land more than once. Prior to planting, raised beds are created. The seeds are planted into them, and then covered with straw for insulation.
The following spring, about 20 months after the seeds were initially harvested, the ginseng seeds will sprout. Once above ground, ginseng plants are high maintenance. They are susceptible to wind, rain, sun and frost damage. To protect the plants from sunburn, shade structures are placed above the plants.
Ginseng farmers will care for their crop for three to five years before harvesting the roots. This allows the root to grow to maturity. A finished root will have a desired wrinkly skin, a white interior and a bitter taste.
After harvest, ginseng roots are cooled for two to three weeks, washed to remove dirt and debris, and prepared for the drying process. All roots are dried for 12 to 16 days at about 100 degrees F to remove moisture. When harvested, the roots are around 70% water, and almost all this moisture is removed during the drying process.
Roots are then graded, sorted and processed. Finished ginseng will be sold as roots, tea and capsules. Ginseng can also be found as a powder, in energy drinks, and in some lotions and lip balms.
Learn more about Wisconsin ginseng products, health benefits, and where to shop for ginseng at ginsengboard.com.
Martin is the 72nd Alice in Dairyland.