An enduring panacea: a lucrative export for nearly three centuries, American ginseng--like its Asian cousin-continues to be a popular herbal remedy for a wide range of ailments.
THE GINSENG PLANT is known by many names--"green gold," for its monetary value as an herbal medicine; "tiger of the plant world," for its elusiveness and rarity; "separated limbs" or garentoquen in the Iroquois language, for its resemblance to the human body; "man essence" in Chinese, for the Asian belief that it contains in concentrate everything man needs to stay healthy.
The Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), whose root is more properly called a rhizome, has been known to Chinese herbalists for thousands of years as a cure-all--thus the name of its Latin genus Panax, based on the Greek word "panacea." Marco Polo mentioned its Chinese uses in tea and syrups (although he confused it with ginger root) and thus became the first in a long line of Westerners to sing its praises.
In northeastern North America, the Iroquois and other indigenous peoples made similar medicinal use of its close cousin, American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)--either chewed or smoked--in poultices, infusions, and decoctions. It was a remedy for palsy and convulsions, headache and colic, open wounds and shortness of breath, feverish sweats and tape worms, poor appetite and eye sores, earache and obstructed labor, laziness and asthma, gonorrhea ... and everything else when other cures had failed.
Above the ground, ginseng is easily overlooked, growing ten to fifteen inches high, with five long-stalked compound leaves, modest greenish white flowers, and red berries in season. The authoritative Missouri Botanical Garden's plant guide judges it to have little ornamental interest--"not particularly showy."
Its roots, however, are another matter--"thick, aromatic, and swollen," according to the Botanical Garden. A fully developed and unbroken multi-lobed root, called a "hand" for its finger-like members, commands a top price in China and is given there as an expensive gift between lifelong friends.
Ginseng is in the Araliaceae family of the plant kingdom, which includes carrots, parsnips, and celery--all notable ingredients in Chinese cooking--as well as English ivy and "Siberian ginseng," which despite its misleading name is outside the Panax genus. True Asian ginseng was so valuable that the Qing Dynasty, also known as the Manchu, rose to power as its exclusive trader, using the proceeds to finance everything from its gunpowder production to its opium addiction.
Native Americans knew nothing of Asian ginseng lore, nor did the Chinese know that the Iroquois preferred theirs smoked or chewed, until the French Jesuit Father Joseph-Francois Lafitau, living in Sault Saint Louis near Montreal at the turn of the eighteenth century, happened upon an illustrated account of Asian ginseng written by a fellow Jesuit stationed in China. Lafitau had a theory that northeastern Asia and North America were closely related by climate and botany, and thus thought that whatever plants were found in one place would be found in the other.
He was not far wrong. Geobotanists think the origin of the ginseng plant goes back tens of millions of years, to when the Northern Hemisphere's paleocontinent Laurasia broke apart to form northern Asia and North America, thereby separating what had once been a single ecological zone. Over time, the Asian and North American biospheres became fully isolated from one another, even though more than half of plant species in both zones are closely related.
Father Lafitau thus set out in search of a plant he had never seen, based on faith and a hunch about a hypothetical link between East and West. It was something akin to the idea that had both driven and confounded Columbus, and to one that has in fact proven to be correct--the Bering land bridge. Lafitau asked his informants among the Huron, Mohawk, and Abenaqui tribes about the plant, describing it to them and sketching its leaves and root shape based on the Chinese illustrations.
No one seemed to know it by his description alone, but he continued to search, and in 1716 finally found it. His native interpreter then recognized it as their standard treatment for childhood ailments. Later, other Jesuits documented the specific ethnobotanieal uses of it and its close cousin Panax trifolius, known as dwarf ginseng. The Iroquois used the latter less as a cure than as black magic--for so-called "lacrosse medicine," to make the opposing team in a lacrosse game drop the ball, and as "fishing medicine," to make a big fish take the bait.
In 1718, Lafitau wrote a report of his discovery to the Duke of Orleans, regent at the time to the six-year-old Louis XV, alerting the French court to the fact that, in addition to the Crown territory's wealth in furs and skins, it was sitting on a pot of "green gold." The news had a lightning effect something like what came out of Sutter's Mill in the year 1849--the California Gold Rush.
"I found in the forests of New France," he wrote, "the ginseng of Tartaric, so highly prized in China. I regard this happy event as just recompense for the zeal which your Royal Highness has shown since childhood to perfect the arts and to make them flourish."
Lafitau strenuously refuted the possibility that American ginseng was related to the similarly human-shaped mandrake root, which since antiquity had been associated with witchcraft, evil spells, and superpowers. Following in the rationalist tradition of the fourth-century BC Greek scientist Theophrastus, founder of scientific botany and author of A History of Plants, the Jesuit father was determined to nip superstition about ginseng in the bud.
Asian ginseng had arrived in the French court as a Siamese royal gift to King Louis XIV in 1687, where it became a favorite remedy for exhaustion and impotence--major complaints, to be sure, at Versailles. "I did not make a secret of my discovery," Lafitau wrote in his report. "At present everyone knows about ginseng, especially in Montreal, where the Indians come to sell it in the market at very high prices."
The English had sung ginseng's praises even before the French. In 1680, the Yorkshire physician William Simpson reported the miraculous cure of the poet Andrew Marvell's lassitude and fatigue when given ginseng powder in red cow's milk straight from the udder. In a typical act of English anti-Catholic insult, Simpson added that the popes in Rome took ginseng "to preserve their medical moisture and natural heat, that so they may longer enjoy their comfortable preferments."
With Lafitau's find, the ginseng hunt was on all over North America's eastern forests, and farmers were heard to complain they could not harvest their crops, their lowly farmhands having run off in search of their own fortunes. Clergyman Jonathan Edwards scolded the Native Americans for gathering ginseng at the expense of performing acts of public worship and husbandry, with its sale profits resulting in "temptation and drunkenness, which proves worse to them than going into the woods."
Word quickly filtered down to the American colonies, where in 1729 William Byrd extolled ginseng's medicinal properties, calling it "the king of plants" for keeping him fit while surveying the steep hills and ridge-tops of western Virginia. "I used to chew the root as I walked along," he wrote. "This kept up my spirits and made me trip away as nimbly in my jackboots as younger men could in their shoes."
Byrd found in the root many unusual virtues. "It cheers the heart of a man who has a bad wife, and makes him look down with great composure on the crosses of the world. It comforts the stomach and strengthens the bowels." Thus the Americans discovered the cure for both heartache and a troubled mind--what the Chinese called qi, the vital energy of Taoist medicine.
Among North American indigenous peoples, ginseng also served as medicine for both body and soul. Oklahoma Seminole men chewed it in order to catch a wife. Penobscot women used it to increase fertility. The wife of Gray Bull, chief of the Crow Indians, dreamt that it would ease her childbirth--which, according to legend, it did. This must have been quite a dream, as Crow territory is at least a thousand miles from ginseng's native range.
William Bartram, one of America's first botanists, wrote in his Travels (1791) that the Cherokee of the American Southeast thought the plant had a mind of its own, "able to make itself invisible to those unworthy to gather it." William's father, John, was also a naturalist, and added the wild ginseng he had found in 1738 growing near the Susquehanna River--a discovery celebrated by Benjamin Franklin in the pages of his newspaper the Pennsylvania Gazette--to his botanical collection in Philadelphia, the oldest in North America and today known as Bartram's Garden.
By the mid-eighteenth century, exports to China reached half a million francs a year. Soon ginseng was a chief forest crop throughout the continent east of the Mississippi River, from Quebec southward to the state of Georgia. Huge fortunes were made by ginseng traders, who helped to open the American West through the Ohio Valley by paying pioneers more per pound for the root than for beaver skins.
The Finnish naturalist Per Kalm, sent to North America by his mentor Carl Linnaeus, father of modern botanical taxonomy, wrote in 1749 about ginseng that "many people feared by continuing to collect their plants, there will soon be very few of them left, which I think is likely to happen, for by all accounts they formerly grew in abundance near Montreal but at present there is not a single plant of it to be found, so effectually they have been rooted out."
A ginseng-laden barge belonging to Daniel Boone, containing twelve tons in some accounts and twelve barrels in others--a lower figure probably closer to the truth, as twelve tons would have made Boone richer than Croesus--capsized in the Ohio River, turning him overnight from prince of the forests into just another grubstaking pioneer.
Fifty-five tons, priced in today's currency at (US)$3 per pound and totaling a third of a million dollars, left New York Harbor for China via Europe in 1773. The first direct-to-China export occurred ten years later. John Jacob Astor, one of America's first self-made millionaires, got his start by cornering the New York ginseng market in 1786. The continent-wide fur-trading empire he founded on these proceeds was greatly bolstered by getting the sharp-eyed winter season animal trappers to dig for ginseng in the summer and fall.
By the year 1900, it is estimated that 60 million tons had been dug, and the root became progressively rare, threatened, endangered, and--as it is today--nearly extinct in the wild. Over-harvesting, paired with habitat loss and the rebounding populations of white-tailed deer and wild turkey, which gobble up ginseng's roots and berries, are responsible for its decline over the years. Ginseng is now covered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the same treaty that protects such rare commodities as Bengal tiger gall and African elephant ivory.
Ginseng's curative and restorative powers have long had a grip on the imagination of hypochondriacs and the truly afflicted alike, as well as those who simply need a little lift from time to time. Samuel Henry, author of A New and Complete American Medical Family Herbal, published in 1814 and consulted widely throughout the nineteenth century, advised do-it-yourself doctors to add a pound of fresh ginseng to a gallon of Jamaican rum, let it stand in the sun for two weeks, and take three glasses a day on an empty stomach to cure "all weaknesses from excess in venery, pain in the bone from colds, and gravelly complaints."
Chinese herbalists believe that American ginseng contains the power of yin--a cooling relaxant and feminine tonic, especially prized in the hotter regions of southern China--while Asian ginseng, native to the cooler parts of Manchuria and southern Siberia, provides the power of yang--a fiery stimulant and virility booster. Asians consume both species in huge quantities, a trend which only promises to grow along with the Chinese economy and a rising demand for the improved well-being of mind and body.
Following President Nixon's "rediscovery" of China, its herbal medicine likewise was "discovered" by US scientists. Ginseng researchers have found active compounds called ginsenosides which might affect everything in the human body from hypertension to the common cold, from breast cancer to attention deficit disorder, from "post-prandial" glycemia, or the after-meal sugar rush of diabetics, to dementia. Investigating its legendary powers as an aphrodisiac, the medical journal Physiological Behavior published a recent article entitled "Effect of American ginseng on male copulatory behavior in the rat."
Non-scientists elsewhere in the world have come up with their own special uses. Koreans feed it to racehorses. The Soviets gave it to cosmonauts. Hong Kong masseuses mix it with their rubbing oils. In the United States, consumers spend over $100 million a year on ginseng ingredients in tea and vitamin tablets, soft drinks and cigarettes, face creams and hang-over remedies--of which many, if not most, are known to be falsely labeled and 100 percent ineffective.
Forest-picked root commands a premium price in China, more because of the pleasing, man-shaped form it assumes in the wild than because of any pharmaceutical superiority. But its annual harvest--about 70,000 pounds in recent years--cannot meet demand.
There is evident nostalgia for the free-spirited life of ginseng diggers, called "sangers" after its backwoods nickname "sang." The Appalachian Ginseng Foundation in Kentucky has tried to organize them into a labor union. The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, has interviewed them on audiotape. Recent books entitled Ginseng Dreams and Ginseng, the Divine Root look back to the sangers of yesteryear tramping over the Catskill, Cumberland, and Kittatinny Mountains--all prime hunting grounds--in the footsteps of Daniel Boone.
Under the CITES treaty, each country must verify that wild ginseng is not being pushed toward extinction before it may permit its export. In the United States, the Fish and Wildlife Service has this responsibility, and its annual report on ginseng is perhaps the most detailed snapshot of how the plant is doing. Yet this agency, responsible for the protection of grizzly bears and whooping cranes, is an odd place to find what is classified--like wine corks, olive oil, maple syrup, and gum arabic--as a "nontimber forest product."
Meanwhile, efforts are underway to meet China's ever-growing, multi-ton annual demand. Although forest-grown root from hand-planted seed, called wild-simulated ginseng, is recommended by agriculture extension agents to struggling Appalachian farmers as an income supplement, it has failed to catch on in significant quantities. By necessity, field-cultivated plants have thus become big business.
The world's largest commercial ginseng planter is British Columbia-based Chai-Na-Ta Corporation, where nearly one million pounds--about a fifth of the annual world total--are produced on 1,500 acres under tightly controlled conditions that mimic the deep shade and good drainage of the plant's original forest habitat. From the company Web site, one can buy a pound of long root for (CAN)$126 or twenty tea bags for $12. A bottle of "women's formula" pills sells for $25 and, presumably for the same reason that women's clothes cost more than men's, male formula pills sell for less. A 3/4-pound box of ginseng candies is priced around $15.
Other countries are growing Panax quinquefolius far from its native North American habitat. Ecuador and Chile have entered the business, and China itself is now planting large quantities. While China once imported American ginseng for processing and then re-exported it to the US herbal medicine market, it now is poised to overtake world production from the country where the American variety was first found almost 300 years ago.
In the last several years, American ginseng prices have suffered, dropping from around (US)$23 in 2004 to $6 per pound in 2006 before rebounding slightly last year. Such fluctuations, due partly to infectious root disease and partly to whimsical Chinese demand for non-wild imports from North America, are nothing new. In 1805, the French botanist Francois Andre Michaux noted in his Travels to the Westward of the Allegheny Mountains that soon after it was discovered, ginseng sold for its weight in gold, but by his time had declined in value to almost nothing.
Never fear, however, for ginseng's enduring place in the medicine chest. Thousands of years before recorded history, the legendary Chinese Emperor Shen Nong--whose teachings later formed the basis of the world's first medical manual, The Divine Farmer's Herb-Root Classic--held that ginseng could restore and cure the body of seven basic ills. Ever since, somebody, somewhere, has sought out the panacea known by its Latin botanical name as Panax.
RELATED ARTICLE: Ingesting ginseng.
There are several ways to take ginseng root as a simple tonic, besides the many packaged products that list ginseng as an ingredient. The following is not a prescription, however. Before using ginseng or any other medicinal herb, you should consult a certified herbalist, a nutritionist, and/or your physician.
When buying dried ginseng, choose firm, light-colored roots and avoid shriveled ones. Roots usually come washed and dried. You can store them in a sealed plastic bag in your refrigerator's crisper for up to ten days. In his book American Ginseng: Green Gold, Scott Persons notes that the optimal daily dose is two to three grams per day--roughly equivalent to a section of dried root about the size of an almond sliver or your little fingernail.
The two most common ways to prepare ginseng are as chewable root slices or as tea. Dried root slices can be chewed like a kind of licorice or jerky. For a pot of ginseng tea, place a dozen or so thin root slices in about a quart of boiling water, using more hot water as needed. People often add honey or sugar to improve the taste.
A third way to prepare ginseng is to place a sliver of root in a broth-style soup and let it simmer for an hour or so. For ginseng-flavored honey, place a whole, washed root in a honey jar. You can make a stronger concoction by placing a slim, whole fresh root in a bottle of vodka.
In traditional Chinese medicine, ginseng is part of a balanced diet that is based not on food groups but on yin and yang. In this view, everything--and everyone--consists, to varying degrees, of these two forces. What constitutes a balanced diet depends on whether a person is predominately yin or predominately yang. People who are more yang are often outgoing, sometimes aggressive, and more likely to feel warm and to suffer from stress, congestion, constipation, headaches, and heart disease, according to Dr. Maoshing Ni, quoted in New Choices in Natural Healing for Women, by Barbara Loecher. Yin people, on the other hand, tend to be calm and reflective, sensitive to cold, and more vulnerable to fatigue, obesity, and diarrhea.
Foods that have a warming effect, such as chile peppers, are mostly yang. Watermelon and other foods that cool the body are mostly yin. Asian ginseng is said to be yang; American ginseng, yin. There are also neutral foods, such as brown rice and lettuce, which neither warm nor cool the body. A healthy diet includes all three types in balanced proportions. "Generally speaking, such a diet is heavy on grains and vegetables; uses a lot of beans and soy products; includes some fruits, nuts and seeds; and uses protein, like red meat, poultry, and fish, as a condiment," says Ni. The menu also changes with the seasons.
To prepare the roots for cooking, remove all dirt and place them in water for about ten minutes. Scrub off the remaining dirt with a small brush under running water. Some sources suggest trimming off the minor forks, sometimes called "fine ginseng," as they can have a more bitter taste than the rest of the root.
From Ginseng, the Divine Root, by David Taylor: [c] 2006 by David Taylor: Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Louis Werner is a documentary filmmaker based in New York City and a frequent contributor to Americas.
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