Jerry Davis: Wild ginseng research ongoing in Wisconsin

August 12, 2018

Char Robaidek, a conservation biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, is beginning what will be an ongoing wild ginseng research project on select ginseng populations in southern Wisconsin.

“This is the first year and we’ll see what questions arise or what things have to be changed in methodology,” Robaidek said. “I’m late in getting started but this will be important to see how the field cameras work and I’m getting sites lined up with private landowners for the future.”

Robaidek sets up a site by focusing a field camera on one or several typical ginseng plants and expects the camera will take her through the plants’ phenology for an entire year, at least that will be the case next year. While most cameras record data (images) on a flash card, some are equipped to send images directly to the researcher’s laboratory. In that regard, this setup is similar to a setup some landowners use to protect their plants. By the time a poacher sees the landowner’s camera flash, it’s too late. The image could already be in the farmer’s barn office.

But Robaidek’s research has nothing directly to do with surveillance of trespassers, only plant phenology in her case.

The plants are currently setting seeds, fruit is ripening, and the digging (harvest) season will begin Sept. 1. The plants she has chosen will remain and will not be dug unless that landowner approves.

Plants that live throughout the winter (as underground roots) may emerge next spring and some cameras may be able to remain in the same

area and capture plant growth from emergence to senescence next year, and longer.

Wild ginseng is a perennial herb, the state herb, which germinates from a seed that has been in the ground at least one year, usually longer. Each year the plant grows a stem with one or more compound leaves (prongs). Older plants have leaves with five leaflets. The number of leaves is often three, but sometimes four and even five in old plants.

In order for a plant to be worthy of being dug (root), and in some cases legally dug, the plant should be 10 years old, or older. Diggers are required to have a digger’s license to harvest and sell the roots.

The plants’ flowers are tiny and are evident as a bud as soon as the plant emerges from the soil in spring.

Various herbivores, including deer, chipmunks and a host of insect grubs, eat the plants when they come above ground. In autumn, the fruits turn red, contain two seeds, and the compound leaves turn golden before dropping.

The seeds that fall from the fruit usually remain dormant for a year or more before germinating.

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