NZ Lifestyle Block
What we can grow in the shadows
One of the world’s most valuable herbs is growing in secret plantations in NZ, and you can grow it too.
Ginseng loves a shady, quiet place to grow into a $3000+ per kilo harvest
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 (see pages 28-29).
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
Everything going perfectly, the potential profit from a 1ha crop is $100,000.
Every tiny rootlet must remain intact or the entire root loses its value.
Glen's insight was that NZ's growing climate was almost identical to that of northern China.
between China and North Korea. North American ginseng, a close relative, grows in the Appalachian Mountains in the northwest 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 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.