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American Ginseng, (Panax quinquefolium), has been sought in America since the time of the early colonies. Wild ginseng was discovered in western New England around 1750, and later in New York, Massachusetts and Vermont. As settlers recognized the value of ginseng, its harvest and trade increased. John Jacob Astor and Daniel Boone are just two of the famous Americans involved in ginseng harvesting in early America. Boone is reported to have harvested several tons of ginseng for export to China in 1788 and Astor relied upon ginseng exports to help build his financial empire. Ginseng had long been prized in China for its medicinal properties, as well as its purported qualities as an aphrodisiac. It is still prized in the Orient today, although its use in the American health food market is growing rapidly as supplements become a larger part of the American diet.

Clusters of five leaves protruding from a central stalk characterize the ginseng plant. During its second year of growth, the plant will produce two prongs of leaf clusters. In general, wild plants should only be harvested if they have at least three prongs. Harvesting younger plants reduces the chance that healthy stands of wild ginseng will reproduce. A four-pronged plant is fully mature, and will produce the best roots. In July or August, the plants exhibit a cluster of green berries. The cluster can contain fifty or more berries, which ripen to a deep red and fall from the plant in late August and September.

Ginseng is found throughout Illinois in the under story of deciduous hardwood stands, growing amongst the leaf litter. The plant prefers shady rolling hills with moist, well-drained soils.

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