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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Senging Season Is Here!

No, that’s not a typo in the title. “Senging” is the art of finding and sustainably harvesting American wild ginseng. 
Ginseng - just starting to turn, no berries yet

I’ve been senging my whole life – family stories say that one of my first trips out  to the woods was when I was about six weeks old, papoosed up, and drug along with her buckets and tools,   so my mother could get started  on digging as soon as the season’s first red berries were showing.

The last couple of years haven’t been so good for me.  2009 brought the loss of my lifelong digging partner just weeks before the season opened. No matter how hard I tried – my grief was still too strong and visceral. I’d trudge into a patch only to find myself sitting on the ground sobbing.  I was too accustomed to blasting in the door at the Skippy’s at dawn, pulling the covers off, jerking on his toes and admonishing him to get up- get moving – we’ve got to get started before it’s too hot and buggy.  There was no Skippy in 2009.  My passion for the plant seemed to have passed along with him.

Skippy and his son Tater during one our of last outdoor excursions together.

The 2010 season wasn’t much better. I could handle the patches alone, but the digging and carting out of the roots and equipment up and down steep creek beds and bluffs  were a tiring and hard process for a old gal with MS.  I had to find another partner.  I tried to enlist Skippy’s younger brother; but it was still too soon for him. He was just getting his solitary woods legs back under him the same way I was. We were learning to be partners, but we had a ways to go yet.  It wasn’t instinctive yet between us the way it was Skippy and I. 

This year is different. The promise is there of a good season, we are seeing the leaves turn yellow – often the first to yellow on the forest floor making them easier to find. Our old patches seem to be in good shape for digging soon.  Little Skippy and I have spent another whole year wandering and learning and comforting each other until we can work nearly as well as his older brother and I did. He’s young and strong and carries all the heavy the stuff. He’s become instinctive about catching me before I fall and hauling me up the hills and out of the hollers.  

Perhaps mostly I am happy to see new patches and old patches returning this year.  Seng patches disappear for a number of reasons, habitat is destroyed, it’s over harvested, or it’s poached by less than scrupulous diggers. Poached, in the same way that a game animal can be poached by hunting it out of season. Poaching occurs when ginseng is harvested out of season, is stolen from private property or public lands without a permit, or incorrectly harvested.  In Illinois ginseng can’t be collected in the Shawnee National Forest, nor can it be collected/harvested on state owned property. Illinois has strict and distinct regulations and requires a license to harvest ginseng. When poachers take ginseng, they do not replant the seeds, they may dig before the seeds are fully mature and red, and likely as not they are digging immature plants. Since 2006, in Illinois one can only harvest a fully mature 4 prong/leafed plant. Many poachers of ginseng have no intentions of sustaining a patch for years to come, or for the next generation. Because of this problem, ginseng diggers and growers keep the locations of their patches a closely guarded secret. An unscrupulous digger can completely wipe out a century old patch in one digging spree.

I learned at tender age the importance of always replanting the seeds, never harvesting young plants, always leaving a few mature plants in the patch, and never harvesting before the berries are fully red and ripe. Planting green berries/seeds serves no purpose.  Lastly I learned a sneaky trick for hiding my patches and preventing anyone from coming in after me and perhaps harvesting the plants I had left. I routinely broke off the leaves the plants I left standing, thus making it impossible for anyone else to tell there was a patch there.

Listed below are some common sense guidelines for sustainable harvest. Let’s all work together so that our children will enjoy the sight of the red berries and yellow leaves at the close of summer, and can also enjoy the rich tradition of being a “Senger”.

Common Sustainable Harvest Practices:

image courtesy of  American Herbal Product Association

American ginseng’s life cycle, as shown, illustrates the life stages of the plant. Seedlings have only 1 prong (leaf), which usually has 3 leaflets. The next phase has 2 prongs, with 3 or 5 leaflets per leaf. Mature plants have 3 or 4 prongs, each with 5 leaflets.

Never harvest seedling (1-prong) or juvenile (2-prong) plants, or plants that are less than 5 years old with at least 4 “bud scars” on the “neck” at the top of the root. 


Too young for harvest - but with one remaining berry!

Keep watch for these rapidly disappearing plants when you are walking through the woods this fall. Ginseng is rare and magical plant. Make a note and show your children, and hope that it will still be around when they take their children to the woods.


  1. Never knew this! I love foraging, but don't get a lot of opportunity to do it. I tihnk the leaves look like 5-leaved poison ivy! Going to have to chekc this out in my area. Thanks!

  2. Okay, so I did a little Googling and I still, I feel the need to ask why you harvest this particular plant.  What is the allure?