American ginseng biology
American ginseng is an inconspicuous herbaceous plant found in the understory of the Eastern deciduous forest. In fact, to the untrained eye, ginseng looks very similar to many leafy green perennials blanketing the forest floor. These plants experience a sheltered life, literally. Large trees shade the understory, absorbing sunlight and preventing the excess evaporation of water. Herbaceous plants, like ginseng, may be particularly sensitive to changes in their stable environment.
Plants adapt their basic body plan in amazing ways in order to fully exploit their environment. Take the saguaro cactus, for example. Those needles, which constitute a prickly defense against herbivory, are actually modified leaves! Ginseng also has a few evolutionary surprises. Ginseng's stem is actually found below ground. During the growing season, this structure, known as a rhizome, develops a bud that will grow into the next year's visible ginseng plant. Each fall, when the aboveground part of ginseng senesces, a scar is formed on the rhizome. This allows us to age ginseng plants, and is a particularly important feature for controlling ginseng harvest. In order to be sold legally, ginseng must be presented with its rhizome attached. This is to make sure that the plant has been harvested is in compliance with the law, which mandates that only plants of 5 years in age and older can be legally harvested. Try to age the plant in the drawing below!
If you said that this plant is 16 years old, then you are correct! So you might be asking yourself, "If ginseng's stem is underground, what is that thing right below the leaves?" As you can see in the drawing, it is a sympodium, which is a part of the leaf that has been modified to act as a stem. From the sympodium arise ginseng's true leaves, also known in the ginseng world as 'prongs'. Ginseng has between 1 and 5 palmately compound leaves, comprised of between 3 and 5 leaflets (of course there are always oddballs that have too few or too many leaflets!). Ginseng flowers are not showy like many ornamental plants. Instead, they are bunched together in a circular inflorescence (an umbel), are small, and greenish-white. The ginseng flowers are attached to the sympodium on a structure called a peduncle! Finally, we get to the structure that has made ginseng the most sought after wild-harvested herbaceous species in the country - its root! Ginseng stores energy collected during the growing season in this fibrous, fleshy taproot. Ginseng roots can take on many shapes, but famously, older roots sometimes resemble the human body.
Ginseng Life Cycle