By Steve Nix
First-year ginseng seedlings produce only one compound leaf with three leaflets and should always be left to grow. That single leaf is the only above-ground growth the first year and the root is only about 1 inch long and 1/4 inches wide. Ginseng and development of the ginseng root has yet to reach maturity through its first five years. Plants younger than five years old are not marketable and should not be harvested.
The ginseng plant is decidious and drops its leaves late in the fall. During spring warm up a small rhizome or "neck" develops at the top of the root with a regeneration bud at the apex of the rhizome. New leaves will emerge from this regeneration bud.
As the plant ages and grows more leaves, typically haveing five leaflets, development continues until the fifth year. A mature plant is 12 to 24 inches tall and has 4 or more leaves, each consisting of 5 ovate leaflets. Leaflets are approximately 5 inches long and oval-shaped with serrated edges. In midsummer, the plant produces inconspicuous greenish-yellow clustered flowers. The mature fruit is a pea-sized crimson berry, generally containing 2 wrinkled seeds.
After five years of growth, the roots begin to attain a marketable size (3 to 8 inches long by 1/4 to 1 inches thick) and weight approximately 1 oz. In older plants, the root usually weighs more, are enhanced by form and much more valuable.