American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius, L.) is a perennial herb that grows under a portion of the deciduous forests of the eastern United States. Wild ginseng once thrived throughout most of the nation's eastern seaboard. Because of a demand for ginseng root, which is mainly used for its healing and curative properties, ginseng may be over-harvested and has attained endangered species status in some locations. Ginseng diggers are constantly encouraged to abide by all laws, leave young seedlings and plant mature seed. This non-timber forest product is making a serious comeback in some locations.
Harvesting of "wild" ginseng is legal but only during a specific season defined by your state. It is also illegal to dig ginseng for export if the plant is less than 10 years old (CITES regs). The season is usually the autumn months and requires you to be aware of other federal regulations for harvesting on their lands. Currently, 18 states issue licenses to export it.
Lets identify Panax quinquefolius: American ginseng's three-pronged (or more) five-leaflet display of the mature plant can help you identify the plant (see above 5-proned wild ginseng photo). W. Scott Persons, in "American Ginseng, Green Gold", says the best way to identify "sang" during the digging season is to look for the red berries. These berries plus the unique yellowing leaves toward the end of the season make excellent field markers.
I have an expanded report on tips for identification and aging ginseng at: Easy Identification and Aging of American Ginseng