Listed as endangered provincially since 1996 and federally since 1999
American Ginseng is a shade-tolerant perennial forest herb which grows to a height of 20-70cm. It can be identified by looking at its compound leaf structure which is composed of 1 to 7 sharp-toothed, oval-shaped leaflets, arranged in a whorls around a single stem. American Ginseng has small greenish-white flowers which bloom from June to August and then form bright red berries that become ripe between August and September. Several berries form in a single globular cluster on the tip of a tall offshoot of mature plants. Below ground, American ginseng has a taproot (a single thick root like a carrot which other small roots can extend off of) which is long, light in colour, fleshy and relatively thick.
Habitat and Range:
American Ginseng is most often found in mature, intact deciduous forests of Sugar Maple, White Ash, Basswood and Butternut that have a diverse herbaceous layer and few shrubs in the understory. This species likes to grow in shade and thus can be sensitive to over exposure to light. Below the ground, American ginseng prefers deep (50-100 cm), well drained, nutrient rich soil with a relatively neutral pH (around 5).
This herb is endemic to (is only found in) North America and is rare across the majority of its range. Overall, less than 1% of its total population is found in Canada within the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Although American ginseng is found in the Land Between, within Ontario it is estimated that only 9 viable (able to survive without intervention) populations remain!
Biology and Life Cycle:
American Ginseng is a long lived, slow maturing plant which can take up to 7-10 years to reach reproductive age! This means that a plant can only produce berries with viable seeds after nearly a decade!
In August or September, after flowering and ripening have occurred, the berries will drop to the ground where they will eventually germinate or be consumed by animals such as thrushes (many species of the thrush family have been declining in recent years, including the Wood Thrush, another Species at Risk found in The Land Between). These act as their main means of seed dispersal.
Threats/Reasoning for Being at Risk:
Generally, the long juvenile period of American Ginseng makes it difficult for populations to quickly recover after a disturbance. Below are some reasons why American Ginseng populations are being disturbed and are at risk.
1. Illegal Root Harvest
The ginseng root is considered valuable in some markets and is illegally harvested and sold by poachers. Root harvests often causes irreversible damage to plants which results in their death. Due to American ginseng's very small populations, the removal of any individual plant threatens to reduce the genetic diversity of the population. This can produce weaker individuals that are more prone to catch diseases (greater genetic diversity means that there are higher odds of some plants being resilient to disease or disturbance versus a group of genetically similar individuals which have experienced significant inbreeding). In addition, due to their slow reproduction, harvesting mature plants significantly reduces the ability of a population to sustain itself.
Fun Fact: Ginseng has long been a coveted resource in Canada! After it was noticed by European settlers in the 1700's ginseng became Canada's second most important export behind fur!
Deforestation, as a result of urban development and natural resource extraction, has resulted in the loss of suitable habitat for American ginseng and countless other species at risk. Deforestation often results in large openings in the forest canopy, which allows more light to reach the forest floor than can be tolerated by ginseng. This light then alters temperature and soil moisture levels on the forest floor which can cause increased competition for space (as more sun tolerant species take over the understory).
3. Plant mortality as a result of browsing, predation and disease
Deforestation results in increased densities of understory species which then supports increased populations of browsers like white-tailed deer. These deer then damage ginseng plants through browsing and cause decreases in the overall fitness (health) of the plants resulting in reduced the seed production. Seed consumption by small rodents and plant mortality caused by naturally occurring diseases also reduce these plants natural populations.
4. Invasive species
Invasive species of plants are negatively impacting the habitat of American ginseng. Species like garlic mustard for example, can completely overtake and out-compete native species. In addition, invasive species of slug have been found to cause significant damage to American ginseng.
Current Conservation Efforts:
Known populations of American ginseng are being monitored and managed through the implementation of deer exclosures and by collecting and planting seeds. To protect plants from illegal harvest authorities are visually blocking populations from walking paths (out of sight out of mind) and are dying roots of known wild populations blue. This discolouration of the roots serves to decrease their value, dissuade their collection, and aids in tracking any collected roots that appear in illegal market. Conservationists are also continually searching for new, previously unknown populations.
How can you help?
If you find a plant that you think is American ginseng, do not pick it, and do not advertise its location (to prevent people from poaching it). Instead, take a photo and GPS location and report it to The Land Between here. Another way that you can help is by learning how to identify invasive species! If you find any invasive species on your property, promptly remove them and dispose of them appropriately. This will help to protect the native habitat of American ginseng and many other species! Learn more about Ontario's invasive species here. Like the flavour/effects of wild ginseng? There are many store-bought alternatives which can meet your medicinal and/or culinary needs that do not negatively impact the species survival!
- Argus, G.W. and J. White. 1984. Panax quinquefolium L. In G.W. Argus and C.J. Keddy, ed. Atlas of the rare vascular plants of Ontario, part 3. Natural Science Museum, Canadian National Museum, Ottawa.