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A Very Special Root

American ginseng, or Panax quinquefolius, grows wild in Wisconsin’s shady, deciduous forests. According to the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau Report (WLRB) on this herb, Wisconsin farmers were harvesting and selling wild ginseng to supplement their farm incomes by the 1870s. Unfortunately, over-harvesting across the U.S. impacted the species enough that by the 1970s, wild ginseng was designated as an endangered species. Wild ginseng is hard to find, and restrictions are placed on its harvest, so ginseng is primarily cultivated underneath shade structures to mimic its natural environment.


Ginseng was first cultivated near Hamburg, Wisconsin, starting with brothers Walter, Edward, John, and Henry Fromm in 1904. By 1919, Wisconsin became the leading ginseng producer in the nation.



Much of Wisconsin’s ginseng has been exported primarily to Hong Kong and China. Ginseng trade thrived from the 1960s to the mid-1990s. Today, farmers keep the tradition strong, harvesting about one million pounds per year.

Growing ginseng is truly a labor of love. It takes four to five years, specialized equipment, and hours of hands-on labor. Also, the plant can only be grown on each piece of land one time, leading many farmers to lease land that is used for more traditional crops as part of a crop rotation. To mimic their natural growing environment, ginseng is grown under artificial shade made with black mesh or wood lattice, which must be custom-built for each new plot of land planted.


After an October harvest, the root will spend 10 to 20 days in refrigeration to alter the sugar and starch content, giving it a better texture. The roots will then be washed and dried, then packaged into boxes or barrels for shipping or storing for years.


Most of Wisconsin’s cultivated ginseng is grown in Marathon County. Growers cite their success to the region’s cool climate and high quality, rich, and well-drained topsoil. As you drive through Marathon County, you’ll notice the shade cloths first, followed by the strawberry-like foliage of the plant, which may have small red berries in the fall. The true hero in the plant is quietly developing its iconic flavor under the soil. The most desirable ginseng roots are those shaped like people, with thick bodies and leg-like roots. In fact, the name ginseng comes from the Chinese term “jen-shen”, which means “in the image of a man”.

Between soups, main dishes, breads, salads, baked goods, and so much more, Wisconsin ginseng can be used in a variety of ways. It is often sold dried, sliced, ground into a powder, or in capsule form. During a recent campaign promoting ginseng, I enjoyed a Cherry Morning Smoothie using Wisconsin ginseng powder with bananas, spinach, shredded coconut, vanilla extract, Greek yogurt, blueberries, and cherries. I also tried a Kimchi Pork Belly Stir Fry that used sliced ginseng and only took 20 minutes to prepare. If you’d like to try to incorporate Wisconsin ginseng into your meals, visit realwisconsinginseg.com for some inspiration.

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