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The just in time season – for ginseng, leaf mould and everything else

Every day with the soil still workable is a gift. I thought I was done for when I stepped out Sunday to a hard frost and the ground frozen stiff. The sun was strong, though, and the frost only an inch or so down. Within a couple of hours, everything had softened up nicely, including the pot of soil mix where I had stashed the American ginseng seed that arrived from Richters two weeks earlier. Panax quinquefolium has a seed with a very specific germination schedule. It won't keep for long, although it can be stored for a short time so it does not dry out. It can be planted any time before freeze-up.

Ginseng is a plant native to Ontario’s deciduous forests. It’s prized for its medicinal properties and has been poached practically to extinction. The exploitation started soon after the first European colonists arrived. A specimen was taken back to France from Quebec in 1704, and within a decade, Jesuit missionaries had made the connection between a root they knew was highly prized in China and the related North American plant. An informative article on the Agriculture Canada website describes how the Jesuits started shipping dried roots, collected by the Iroquois, to China in 1716 with such success that American ginseng became second only to fur as a trading commodity in New France.

Today, ginseng is very rare in its natural habitat, and listed as endangered in Canada and Ontario. Clear-cutting and destruction of the forest canopy have decimated wild populations. The high price it commands in Asian markets, where some say it is considered superior to the local variety, threatens what is left. The Ontario Wildflowers website has a series of photos of ginseng in various stages of development, the last one showing the sad sight of a bare patch of ground after poachers had dug it all up, leaving only a few seedlings. That’s why anyone who knows of ginseng growing in the wild should keep quiet and not divulge the location. The province’s Endangered Species Act makes it illegal to “to plant, harvest, possess, buy, sell, lease or trade ginseng collected from the wild in Ontario” without a permit. The export of wild ginseng root from Canada is complexly prohibited. But that’s just the law. Who’s enforcing it? Not the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, the ministry slashed to a parody of its former self by successive governments of every political stripe.

Ginseng is notoriously particular about where it will grow. Shade - for at least three-quarters of the day – is essential. Loamy soil on a north-facing slope, in oak or maple forest, is ideal, providing good drainage and cool temperatures. Another important siting consideration is security. To guard against poachers, growers are advised to choose a site not visible from the road. In Ontario, the main centre of cultivation is in the Haldimand-Norfolk region, according to Agriculture Canada. Commercial growers use lath structures to shade their fields.  

It’s the fleshy root that is the desirable portion of the plant – and that takes up to seven years to develop to marketable size. The site I have chosen is not ideal – it’s flat and may retain too much moisture. But it’s always worth a try, for the pleasure of growing an important plant that belongs in our area.  The seed came to me from Richters already stratified, which means it had gone through a cold treatment, a real or simulated winter with temperatures low enough to break dormancy. With many native plants, one winter is sufficient, and germination takes place in the spring. Not so with ginseng; it won’t germinate until the next fall, a year after it was harvested.

The Richters instruction sheet called for the use of leaf mould, both as a mulch and a fertilizer. Leaf mould is not something that is part of the gardener’s lexicon in North America, so I was excited to find an officially prescribed use for a soil amendment that is an essential element of my gardening regime. It’s very easy to make. Create a tall wire container and add all your own leaves and as many from other people as you can get.  Turn a few times next summer, and water occasionally. Allow another winter to finish breaking the material down and the next spring, 18 months after you first collected them, your leaf pile is a quarter of its former size and is ready to use, albeit with a little sieving. This week, I’ve been working on my 2016 leaf mould. I recently discovered a fellow leaf mould fan in Andre Beausoleil, known locally for his ecological work, especially with regard to the restoration of the Lafontaine Creek. He points out that not only is leaf mould an excellent soil enrichment resource, it’s also 100 per cent weed-free, and it is actually free.

So, on Monday, I prepared the ginseng seeding area, removing roots and stones, and cleared out my pile of leaf mould – a completely decomposed pile, no sieving required, that was started in the fall of 2012 – to create a slightly raised bed. I raked it smooth, let it settle a day, and put the seeds in, 2 by 6 inches apart. Then I mulched them with year-old (partially decomposed) leaf mould. If they germinate, I shall have to space them out.

On-going care will include guarding against all the pests and diseases ginseng is prone to – it seems that good air circulation will address many of these, so weeding is essential. But the experts warn that the seedlings don’t look much like the mature ginseng plants and, according to a fact sheet from Ohio State University, some novice growers have been known to weed out all their first-year seedlings.

From Agriculture Canada, some final words of wisdom: “Frequently one sees the scientific name spelled Panax quinquefolium, in the belief that the genus name Panax is neuter, and so requires the second word of the binomial to use the Latin suffix “"um."” However, the name Panax is masculine in both Greek and Latin, and the Code of Botanical Nomenclature requires that the masculine form be used, i.e., quinquefolius.”

So now you know. 

This morning’s snow has melted and the ground is still unfrozen. I have seed to start, leaves to rake, plants to move. Every hour is a gift…

Agriculture Canada
Ontario Wildflowers
Ohio Stature University factsheet
Maureen Pearce
- 7 November 2014 at 08:22pm

Thank you. Informative and very interesting. I try hard to retain leaves - it's a yearly battle with a husband who thinks leaves look messy! Please keep us informed on the status of your ginseng plant. I am interested.
Anne-Marie Roussy
- 8 November 2014 at 05:43am

Good luck with this project, I hope it works. Please keep us up to date on it.
- 8 November 2014 at 06:55am

Ah! Kate! Just reading this makes me smell the scent of soil in the woods and invites me to connect with all those who wander the forests and marvel at finds... To think in the early 1700's someone else might have walked here, found ginseng , harvested, traded and someone in China might have used reminds us we must be stewards and this reminds me of the long historical community membership I share.
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