Scientific Name: Panax quinquefolius
Listen to the Plant Detective radio show about American ginseng
American ginseng, native to North America, was used medicinally by indigenous North Americans for a variety of ailments. In the 1700s, American ginseng was introduced into Asia, where the main Asian medicinal species, Panax ginseng, had long been an important ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Now, ironically, American ginseng is generally preferred in China, while North Americans often prefer Asian ginseng.
(Photo by Dennis Woodland posted with permission from D. Woodland and Wisconsin State Herbarium)
Ginseng helps bring the body into balance. Whether a system is underfunctioning or overfunctioning, ginseng encourages a return to the middle. It helps the body deal with stress, boosts the immune system, and improves memory, thinking, and energy.Compounds in ginseng called ginsenosides increase protein synthesis and neurotransmitter activity in the brain. Ginseng affects the heart, encouraging it to pump regularly, and increases the amount of oxygen the body uses and how well it uses it. Ginseng helps increase the number of white blood cells and other infection-fighting entities in the body. The plant grows relatively low to the ground, a native mainly of the eastern side of the continent. Liking the dappled light under trees, ginseng puts out a cluster of red berries that ripens by early autumn.Ginseng''s two-pronged root--the part used for medicine--looks like a person, earning ginseng the nickname "man-root." That''s what "ginseng" means in Chinese, and American Indian peoples such as the Penobscot also called the plant by this name.
Today, ginseng is considered a species of concern or endangered or threatened in many American states where it grows. Its trade is regulated and digging is restricted to a few months a year, only plants above a certain age, and by permit only.
Individual American ginseng plants can live up to 90 years. You can tell how old a plant is by counting what are called bud scale scars--bulges along the stem above the root crown (the root crown is where the stem and the root meet). Every year, ginseng plants form buds on the stem below the soil. These stay dormant, but die off at the end of the year, leaving a scar.
Ginseng takes five to six years to mature enough to harvest. It's not considered fully grown until it's twenty years old (kind of like humans!). Older roots are more valuable than younger ones.
Treatise written by Father Lafitau. From University of South Carolina Libraries.
China’s interest in North American ginseng can be traced back to one man, a French Jesuit priest in Canada named Father Joseph Francis Lafitau. Lafitau read about ginseng use in China and wondered if the Chinese would be interested in the North American species, which he’d been introduced to by the Iroquois. They were indeed interested, and trade began in 1716. Fur traders adopted ginseng as a sideline, since they were often in areas where it grew. However, they did not follow sustainable harvesting practices such as the Ojibwa Indians', which harvests plants only after berries turn red, and actually sows them to replenish supplies. Before 1784, the plant was so overharvested for the Chinese trade, it became rare. In 1788, legend says, Daniel Boone and others picked about 12 tons of ginseng for the trade, but the barge carrying it overturned on the Ohio River. Records of the trade from 1862 show that ginseng exports exceeded 300 tons. At this time, the root was once again becoming scarce.
(Photo by Terry Jinks, posted with permission from www.earthpower.com)
What are the differences between the two species, Asian ginseng and American ginseng? American ginseng tastes sweeter and is more relaxing, while Asian ginseng stimulates the body.
Siberian ginseng belongs to the ginseng family and shares some characteristics of American and Asian ginseng, but it’s a different species, Eleutherococcus sentiocosus. “Red ginseng” is Chinese ginseng processed (soaked, steamed, and pressed) with other herbs. Another species of North American ginseng is Panax trifolius, a dwarf species.
In China, a good ginseng root is considered equal to health insurance.
Wild ginseng root can bring in hundreds of dollars per pound. It takes many roots to make a pound. Because it's so valuable, ginseng has been overharvested. Large deer populations (yes, they like to eat ginseng!) and habitat destruction by humans have also put strain on wild ginseng populations. Groups working to preserve wild ginseng include the American Herbal Products Assocation, United Plant Savers, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Appalachian Ginseng Foundation.
Kristin Johanssen has written a nonfiction book that reads like a mystery and looks in-depth into the world of the modern American ginseng trade. Ginseng Dreams: The Secret World of America's Most Valuable Plant was published by the University Press of Kentucky in 2006.
American Ginseng References for The Plant Detective Radio Show
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