Ginseng has been used as an herbal medicine for thousands of years in countries like China and Korea. In America, Native Americans also used the wild ginseng that grows throughout the land. American ginseng has not only been overharvested but also improperly harvested. It is important that only mature ginseng be harvested. Since ginseng can grow for up to 100 years, there are many stages of the plant's life and certain identifying features that indicate it is a mature plant. Usually, a wild mature ginseng plant is 5 years or older.
Know your state laws. Some states have laws that regulate the harvesting of ginseng. They include how many prongs the ginseng must have and where you can't harvest, such as state land. Some states even require a permit to harvest ginseng. If you improperly harvest ginseng, you may be fined (see Resources below for more information).
Look for ginseng plants. Generally, ginseng grows east of the Mississippi River and in Oregon and Washington states. In hot southern states, it usually only grows in mountainous areas. Ginseng grows in shady areas and is most prevalent in thick, mature forests.
Count the number of prongs (branches) from the main stalk. Most states require that ginseng have at least three prongs, some as many as five. Each prong usually has five oval leaflets. However, this is only one step to identifying mature plants.
Run your finger down to the stem. From the ground to the first prong should be at least a 1/2 inch. This is an indicator that it a mature ginseng.
Look at the fruit. Mature ginseng fruit is usually about the size of a pea, each containing at least two seeds.
Measure how high the plant is. Mature wild ginseng is usually 12 to 24 inches tall.