Finding ginseng requires finding shady woodlands with rich soil. Once there, the ginseng hunter needs to be able to identify both the plant and its common companion species. Companion species are important because they are often more visible than the ginseng itself and mark places where ginseng is likely present.
American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, grows in the eastern half of North America from Quebec west to Minnesota and south as far as a line stretching from Georgia to Oklahoma. It is most common in the Appalachians and the Ozarks. It prefers moist, well-drained, shady slopes facing north or east with plenty of undergrowth and leaf litter.
Plants that commonly grow in similar habitat include goldenseal, black cohosh, blue cohosh, American spikenard and Virginia snakeroot. Other companion species are pawpaw trees, bloodroot and wild ginger. Some of these plants can tolerate more sun than ginseng, so the best strategy is to look for the combination of proper habitat and companion plants. The presence of a lot of poison ivy suggests that ginseng is not present as poison ivy prefers more sunlight than ginseng.
Ginseng has a green, non-woody stem that distinguishes it from look-alikes with brown woody stems, such as Virginia creeper and hickory seedlings. The plant's leaves, also called "prongs," radiate from a central peduncle that also supports a raceme that develops flowers and seed. Each prong consists of three to five tooth-edged leaflets. Mature ginseng plants usually have three or four prongs and produce brilliant red seeds in the fall. Plants with fewer than three prongs are immature and are protected by law in many states.