Ginseng family (Araliaceae)
Description: This perennial wildflower is about 1-2' tall and similarly across. It has a single erect stem that is hairless and unbranched; the stem terminates in a whorl of about 3 compound leaves. Each compound leaf is palmate with 5 widely spreading leaflets; the petiole (basal stalk) of each compound leaf is 2-5" long. Individual leaflets are 2½–6" long and ¾–2½" across; they are ovate to obovate, medium green, hairless, and finely serrated along their margins. The lower pair of leaflets are smaller in size than the other leaflets. The larger leaflets have longer petiolules (basal stalklets) than the smaller leaflets, and they have short slender tips.
From the terminal point of the central stem, there develops a single umbel of greenish white flowers. There are about 10-20 flowers per umbel; each umbel is about ½–¾" across. Individual flowers are only 1/8" (3 mm.) across; each flower has 5 spreading petals, a short tubular calyx, 5 stamens, and a pistil. The calyx has 5 tiny teeth. The blooming period occurs from early to mid-summer and lasts about 2 weeks. During the fall, fertile flowers are replaced by a small cluster of bright red berries spanning about ¾" across. Each berry is globoid-ovoid in shape and contains about 2 seeds. The root system consists of a fleshy taproot that is fusiform in shape (widest in the middle and tapering at both ends); this taproot can be several inches long. American Ginseng reproduces by reseeding itself.
Cultivation: The preference is medium to light shade, a rich loamy soil with abundant organic material, and mesic conditions.
Range & Habitat: The native American Ginseng is distributed throughout Illinois, but it is relatively uncommon. Populations have declined because of habitat destruction and overcollection of the fleshy roots. This wildflower is found mesic deciduous woodlands. Usually, such woodlands are high quality and little-disturbed.
Faunal Associations: Very little is known about floral-faunal relationships for this species. Probably small bees and various flies visit the flowers for nectar or pollen. The red berries are probably eaten to a limited extent by woodland birds that either nest or search for food on the ground; small rodents may eat the berries as well.
Photographic Location: Spitzler Woods Nature Preserve in Macon County, Illinois. This preserve contains a high quality deciduous woodland. The photograph was taken during the autumn, when the berries become mature.
Comments: It is unfortunate that this classic woodland wildflower has become uncommon. American Ginseng is a member of a small group of plants in the Araliaceae; these consist primarily of woodland wildflowers in Illinois. Another woodland wildflower that does not occur within the state, Panax trifolius (Dwarf Ginseng), is found further to the east. Dwarf Ginseng is smaller in size (about 6" tall) than American Ginseng, and its compound leaves are trifoliate, rather than palmate with 5 leaflets. The flowers and berries of these two species are similar to each other.