Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius L.) Culture in Marathon County, Wisconsin : Historical Growth, Distribution, and Soils Inventory
Polczinski, Len C.
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, College of Natural Resources
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Knowledge of ginseng (Panax ginseng) and its medicinal importance to the Chinese culture can be traced back more than 4,000 years. Information on ginseng and its reported value to the Chinese spread to North America by written reports kept and passed along by missionaries. Soon after its discovery in North America, ginseng (Panax guinguefolius L.) became increasingly scarce as a result of overharvest and habitat destruction. This resultant decline in natural production encouraged many early attempts to cultivate this plant. The cultivation of ginseng has flourished in Marathon County for the past eighty years. Presently, nearly ninety percent of the domestic production in North America is believed to occur in this county. The reasons for the prodigious success of this crop in the county are not entirely clear. It has been frequently suggested that the acidic nature of the soils, coupled with its excellent drainage characteristics, and the accompanying cool climate are the major factors contributing to the region's success. However, it would be shortsighted to attribute the success solely to these physical factors without recognizing the cultural components involved. Ginseng is considered a minor and specialized crop in Wisconsin. Subsequently few public dollars have been available for research into the production of this plant. Prior to this study, basic data at the county level documenting current acreages, preferred soils, and the pattern of historical growth were unknown. Using aerial photography, it was possible to trace the culture's expansion from 250 acres in 1938 to nearly 1,100 acres in 1980. Many soil series throughout the county are in use in growing ginseng. However, Marathon, Fenwood, Rozellville, Chetek, and Moberg soil series were predominately engaged in the production of ginseng in 1968, 1978, and 1980. Cultivation practices commonly employed in the production of ginseng are unique to this crop. Four years of intensive labor is required from the time seeds are planted until the roots are harvested. Conscientious spray and hand weeding programs dominate the spring and summer activities. Fall is the busy season with seed harvest, seed bed preparation-planting, and root harvest all following at close intervals.