The secret (and expensive) world of growing ginseng in New Zealand
One of the world’s most valuable herbs is growing in secret plantations in NZ, and you can grow it too.
Words: Paul Charteris
Who: Glen Chen
What: Ginseng grower
Where: Somewhere in the middle of the North Island
Glen Chen’s crop is so valuable, if you ask him where it is, the best he’ll do is show you a circle on a map that covers most of the central North Island. Trying to pin him down on a more exact location doesn’t work.
“It’s growing in a forest at reasonably high altitude,” he says. The location of his ginseng is such a closely guarded secret, only a dozen or so people know. For a good reason too, because there’s probably no other crop in New Zealand that’s as valuable, and it increases every year the plants stay in the ground.
Most of Glen’s ginseng grows in commercial pine forests, with plants ranging from 12-20 years old. Freshly-dug ginseng roots are worth $3000-$7000 per kilogram. The older the root, the more you get per kilo. Once it has been dried and packaged, it can fetch $10,000 per kilo, and you can double that if it’s sold in the most valuable marketplaces in China or Korea.
“Naturally, given the value of the crop, we keep the exact location of our ginseng a closely guarded secret,” says Glen. “We have seen what happens in the United States when poachers illegally enter private lands and dig up the root to sell on the black market.”
The US is the wild west of wild ginseng with booby traps, armed standoffs, and shady deals made out of the back of pickup trucks. It’s exactly the situation New Zealand growers hope to avoid, says Glen.
A well-managed commercial ginseng plantation grown in a New Zealand forest could yield more than 100kg of root per hectare after 18 years, with a possible profit of more than $100,000 per hectare. That’s about double the return from commercial forestry.
He might be reticent about saying where his crops are growing, but Glen is excited to talk all things ginseng and share how small-scale growers can plant it in a shady corner of their block.
Chinese-born Glen works from his lifestyle block near the shores of Lake Rotorua. His company, KiwiSeng is the largest of the three commercial growers of ginseng in NZ, with crops growing under 100,000ha of pine forests.
He and his family fell in love with the country following a holiday in 2008. A biologist by training, he began searching for investment opportunities that would allow him to stay in New Zealand.
As he whittled down a preferred list of investments, ginseng stood out. He and his family were very familiar with the herb in China, often making ginseng chicken soup and ginseng tea in autumn and winter to boost their health and immunity.
Asian ginseng grows naturally in pine and evergreen forests in the Changbai mountain range which forms the border between China and North Korea. North American ginseng, a close relative, grows in the Appalachian Mountains in the north-west of the US.
The growing area around the ancient world heritage forest in the Changbai volcanic range is roughly the size of New Zealand and lies at the same latitude, as far north as Hamilton, south to Wellington.
Wild ginseng from the forests of Mt Changbai can be worth a small fortune. Its age largely determines its value. The older, more gnarled, and wrinkly a root appears, the higher the supposed potency of its active ingredients. In 2007, a single 300-year-old root weighing around 400g sold for more than $500,000. A prized wild ginseng root can easily sell for more than $200,000 in China.
WHY IS IT SO VALUABLE?
Ginseng is an ancient Chinese herb and is considered a national treasure. Its first recorded use dates back around 5000 years. Centuries of tradition and superstition created an elaborate series of rituals associated with finding the plant and then carefully digging it up by hand.
A single root could take hours to dig. Each of the fine rootlets had to remain perfectly intact, as even the tiniest break caused the entire root to lose its value.
Roots were then wrapped in tree bark and moss from the forest, and transported on horseback, then boats to get it to the homes of Emperors and nobility.
The word ginseng is a corruption of the Chinese word ‘ren-shen’, often translated to mean ‘man root’, referring to how its forked shape sometimes resembles the human body.
Asian and American ginseng are the two main species in the genus Panax (from the Greek for ‘panacea’). Asia’s Panax ginseng is said to have warming effects (yang) that balance the cooling ‘yin’ of American ginseng (Panax quinquefolis, which refers to its five leaves).
WHY GINSENG IS NOW A COMMERCIAL CROP
There isn’t enough wild ginseng to sell anymore, so it’s now grown commercially in China, Korea, Canada, and the US on small farms. It’s typically flat land where the plants are sown mechanically into highly cultivated seedbeds. It’s left to grow for four years under shade cloth, then mechanically harvested.
Farmed ginseng roots are thick, bulbous, smooth, and bear a superficial resemblance to their wild cousins. It sells by the ton and is often made into capsules or ginseng extract used in energy drinks. It retails – once dried – for around $300 per kilogram.
GROWING GINSENG IN NZ
Glen’s business takes advantage of NZ’s growing climate being nearly identical to that of northern China. The growing system he uses is called ‘simulated-wild’. Simulated-wild ginseng is grown as an understorey crop under trees in an established forest. It closely mimics ginseng’s native habitat, but growers have the advantage of knowing where the crop is, and how many plants are there. In the wild, ginseng hunters must search vast areas and may only find a few plants.
Rich volcanic soils, cold winters, a high UV light index, and adequate rainfall all make the central North Island an ideal growing environment. However, there are other commercial growers in Nelson and King Country and small plots thriving in Taranaki, Otago, Bay of Plenty, and Waikato.
Ginseng prefers to grow in about 70% shade, so the dappled light that hits the forest floor under 12-25 year old radiata pine forests is ideal. The roots have the same twisted and knotty appearance as ginseng found growing in the wild. Each root weighs about 5g – considerably less than farmed ginseng roots which weigh around 100g.
Glen has a lease arrangement with the iwi landowners of the forest he grows in. He’s also negotiated an agreement with the company that grows the pines, allowing the ginseng to grow undisturbed by forestry activities.
Around 1.2 million hectares of NZ is covered with forestry plantations, so the scope for growing simulated-wild ginseng is large. There’s nothing magical about commercial pine plantations, says Glen, but the benefit is their uniformity.
Trees are all the same age, provide similar light conditions, and there’s easy access between them. Glen says he’s proud that his ginseng is the only certified organic simulated-wild ginseng growing operation in the world. They do everything by hand, and don’t use pesticides or herbicides.
The crop also has no detrimental effect on the commercial forestry operation, quite the opposite. Forest managers are all too pleased because Glen’s weeding keeps the blackberry and bracken fern from taking over the forest understorey.
WHY ONLY 3 PEOPLE CAN DIG UP GLEN’S GINSENG
Ginseng is a perennial, so the roots will keep growing for as long as it’s in the ground. Forest-grown plants are at least seven years old before the root is harvested. Plants aged 12-18 years of age resemble the wild type and attract premium prices.
It’s a slow, careful harvest. It can take an hour to extract one root from deep in the ground, and it can’t be damaged. So far, only three people are trained to dig up Glen’s crops. Harvesting takes place from March until June.
10 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT GROWING GINSENG
If you have a shady corner on your block, ginseng is a possible growing opportunity – if you’re patient.
1. The plant isn’t difficult to grow. Once mature, it’s about 70cm x 70cm, with glossy, dark-green leaves similar to a strawberry. The striking red berries grow in clusters over summer.
2. It grows well in most parts of NZ but does best in areas with cold, hard winters and warm, dry summers. Glen says it’s unlikely to do well in warm, humid parts of the country with mild winters. May to August is the best planting time.
3. It tolerates a range of soil types, except for dense clay soils, which impede root development. Rich friable volcanic soils are ideal.
4. The BEST site will have around 70-80% shade (especially in summer), such as under a pine plantation; established deciduous trees; a patch of native bush; an established home orchard.
5. The growing area needs to be free from weeds over the plant’s lifetime, especially when it’s young. Blackberry, if left unchecked, can quickly smother a crop within a couple of years.
6. Ginseng can be sown directly from seed, or you can plant out seedlings. Ginseng seeds and plants (aged six years) are available from NZ ginseng growers.
7. The planting rate is surprisingly high at 10 plants per square metre. If planting in an established pine forest, you can get 20,000 plants per hectare. Not surprisingly, many first-time growers opt to plant a few hundred seedlings first time around to see how well it establishes before committing to a larger area.
8. It’s recommended you harvest ginseng once it’s 8 years+ old – buying seedlings (vs sowing seeds) gives you a good head-start.
9. Fencing off the growing site is essential. Livestock, wild deer, and pigs love to browse ginseng. Rabbits, hares, and possums are also big fans. All need controlling to prevent them from wiping out a growing area.
10. Pheasants have also developed a taste for Glen’s ginseng plants and have prompted an arms race between the two parties. At this stage, Glen admits the pheasants are winning. His theory? He’s convinced they’re getting smarter every year as a result of eating his ginseng crops.
WHAT YOU CAN DO WITH GINSENG
Ginseng is at its most flavourful when it’s fresh. Glen sells freshly dug roots and leaves on his website, mostly to Asian customers in Auckland. There’s also growing demand for the fresh product among Auckland’s culinary community, and he regularly fulfils orders from restaurants wanting it for teas and soups.
He also sells it dried, his most popular product. The root is dug up, left for a week until it’s 95% dry, then packaged and sold whole. A small amount of ginseng is powdered and combined with either deer velvet or manuka honey to create lozenges. Ever the product developer, Glen also pulls out a bottle of a golden liqueur with a large 13-year-old root floating in the middle. “I am pretty sure this will cure everything,” he jokes. “Even Covid!”
However, the market for New Zealand-grown ginseng remains narrow for now. KiwiSeng sells the majority of its products via its website to New Zealand consumers. The large China market is lucrative but remains closed to NZ until the Ministry for Primary Industries and its Chinese counterparts officially open up a trade channel. This process may take another year or two.
Korea is the second-largest market in the world, but exports face exorbitantly high tariffs. Most of KiwiSeng’s current exports are to a Hong Kong-based retail chain.
WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT GINSENG?
Ginseng is used worldwide as a tonic, food, and in products, including teas, milk, honey, capsules, candy, and cosmetics. Its main active ingredients are saponins, called ginsenosides, which are found almost exclusively in Panax species.
A 2019 study by a team of scientists from Massey University found that ginseng grown in NZ forests had double the levels of ginsenosides as the same species grown in China and Korea, a big boost for the industry here. A separate study, also by Massey University, found high levels of ginsenosides in the leaves too.
Although ginseng is probably the best-studied herb globally, there’s not enough research yet to make substantive or precise medical claims. It’s bought by people to promote their overall health, rather than anything specific.
Studies show it may relieve pain, and is linked to sharper cognition, tumour prevention, enhanced immune system function, and has anti-diabetic, anti-fatigue, anti-stress, anti-oxidative, and anti-ageing effects.
Glen says Chinese consumers use ginseng as a health insurance policy, especially in autumn and early winter. Data supplied by NZ Trade and Enterprise showed that ginseng sales spiked in China in mid-2020 in response to Covid-19.
QUICK & EASY GINSENG TEA
You can make ginseng tea from either the roots or leaves of the ginseng plant. You need about 10g of fresh root or leaves per 500ml of water.
If using the leaves:
• pick in late summer so you don’t slow down root growth;
• leave in the sun for a day to dry;
• slice thinly.
If using the roots:
• harvest, then wash carefully;
• slice thinly.
Boil either the roots or leaves in hot water for 10 minutes. The tea can be drunk either hot or left in the fridge for a few days. The initial taste may be bitter followed by a sweet aftertaste.