Inexperienced foragers might have trouble distinguishing between the healthy American Ginseng plant and the poisonous Virginia Creeper. The two plants have much in common, but we will discuss both plants, highlighting the differences so that you can tell them apart reliably.
American Ginseng, also known as Panax ginseng, is a perennial native to the eastern United States.
It is hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8, but it has been widely harvested and is currently an endangered species in the wild. It prefers shady spots with nutrient-rich, moist soil.
The Virginia creeper, also known as Parthenocissus quinquefolia, grows as a deciduous woody vine in the eastern United States.
It is hardy in USDA Zones 3 to 9. It thrives in wooded areas and ravines, and can be invasive. Virginia creeper grows in a wide range of conditions.
Growth Habits of the Plants
The growth habits of the plants are very different. Ginseng grows low to the ground achieving 10 to 15 inches in height and clustering in wooded and rocky areas. The leaf prongs are upright, but they do not branch.
In contrast, Virginia creeper is a climbing vine, using tendrils to grab hold of surfaces and other plants. Virginia creeper grows up to 50 feet in length, sprawling along the ground or climbing on trees, walls, fences, and other vertical surfaces.
Use caution when identifying the plants. When Virginia creeper has nothing to climb on, it grows along the ground and can look like American ginseng.
Both plants are members of the Ivy family. They have similar leaves, oblong and toothed.
The Virginia creeper leaflets are more coarsely serrated, and the teeth do not continue around the base of the leaflet. Also the leaves are broad in the middle.
American ginseng leaf serrations extend around the entire leaf, and the serrations are smaller. The leaves are slimmer overall and broadest close to the tip.
The leaf attachments are also different, with the ginseng leaflets growing from petioles that attach to the central stem. Virginia creeper leaflets sprout from a central point and connect directly to the stem.
Both kinds of leaves are compound with five leaflets each. The ginseng leaves grow in clusters of 3 or more compound leaves, while the Virginia creeper leaves grow singly. The five leaflets of the Virginia creeper are approximately equal in size, while the ginseng leaflets consist of three larger leaflets in the center and a smaller leaflet to each side.
Another difference is very evident in the fall when the leaves of the Virginia creeper turn brilliant red, while the American ginseng leaves turn yellow.The leaves of Virginia creeper are irritating to some people, but not everyone is sensitive to the plant.
The fruits ripen in mid to late summer and are especially evident in the fall. The dark blue or black Virginia creeper berries are poisonous and can be fatal when eaten. The birds like them, but teach your children to stay away. In contrast, ginseng produces red berries.American ginseng is a valuable plant with many medicinal uses. Because of this, it has been over-harvested and is considered endangered in many states. If you see a plant that you believe to be American ginseng, you must be careful to verify its identity carefully.
Harvesting wild ginseng is legal, but only during specific periods, usually in the fall. Check your state laws for more information. Ginseng hunters should plant the mature berries whenever they are found. This practice will help bring back this valuable plant.
American ginseng grows well in your garden in rich soil and partial shade to full shade. The plant grows from a healthy piece of rootstock or seed. The seeds take a long time to germinate, up to two years.
Harvesting American Ginseng
When harvesting, look for mature plants with at least four sets of compound leaves. Younger roots are too small. Follow these rules when digging ginseng:
- Know the laws in your area
- Only harvest mature plants
- Harvest ginseng in the fall after the seeds turn dark red
- Dig carefully, keeping the roots intact
- Plant all the berries to grow new plants
By harvesting carefully, you assure that the species survives and thrives for future generations.
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