Ginseng has always been shrouded in folklore and magic. Like the rich mountain forests where it grows naturally, its use dates way back into the mists of antiquity.
Ginseng is a perennial herb belonging to the genus Panax, which is derived from the Greek word Panakos, or panacea in English, meaning an all-healing remedy.
Both the Asian and American varieties are employed medicinally, sharing the same growth habits and virtually the same appearance, with the only difference being that the Asian variety is larger.
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is found throughout the deciduous mountain forests of Central and Eastern North America. The first specimens of American ginseng were transported to Europe in 1704.
It should come as no surprise that the North American Indians also knew of and utilized ginseng root for its medicinal qualities. They called it Garantoquen, which translates as “like a man,” in reference to its forked root structure, which closely resembles the shape of a man (albeit with the help of a little imagination). Interestingly, the Mandarin name for ginseng, rén shēn, shares a similar meaning. In fact, the Chinese character for the “shēn” also resembles the shape of the root.
American Indians have a particular method of harvesting the root whereby it is only harvested after the red fruit of the plant has reached maturity. They then bend the stem down to the ground before proceeding to dig the root. This method reportedly increases the germination rate and provides for a greater future yield.
The Sioux Indian women had especially well-developed ways of cleaning and processing ginseng, and were said to collect the finest root of all the tribes.
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is found primarily in the Northern Hemisphere and mainly in China, Tibet, Mongolia, and Korea. The Korean and Manchurian species are traditionally considered the most highly prized. Wealthy Chinese will pay up to $200,000 for the vitality-enhancing properties of a premium grade ginseng root.
These highly prized roots are found growing wild in the mountainous regions of Korea and the Changbai and Xiaoxinganling mountains in China’s northeast. They grow on steep slopes at heights between 500 and 1,100 meters above sea level.
Wild ginseng growing in ancient forests with deep loamy soil and moisture-laden air is found to have a much greater potency than ginseng grown commercially out of its natural environment. This bears witness to the fact that the nature a plant possesses is intimately connected to its native environment.
According to Taoist philosophy, ginseng is described as having a slightly cold nature because it grows in the cold and shadowy mountains. It is said to possess more Yin. Ginseng is also slightly Yang since it grows on the mountain slopes, which are considered to be Yang.
Of the five elements known in Chinese medicine, ginseng is considered part of the Earth element, since its growth habitat is in the mountains. It is slightly sweet in nature.
Each of the five elements has organs that correlate to them. The spleen and stomach belong to the Earth element; therefore, the sweetness in ginseng can fortify the Yang of the spleen and stomach, sending energy throughout the entire body. According to Chinese herbal medicine, a sweet taste can moisten, tone, and improve vital energy.
Ginseng is indeed the most highly valued of all herbs by Chinese physicians, and its use dates back at least 5,000 years. There are many health benefits attributed to it, leading many Western scientists to ponder how one herb can have such wide-ranging therapeutic uses. The answer to this is relatively simple when you understand what the traditional Chinese physicians knew very well: ginseng’s primary effect in the body is to normalize the pituitary gland function.
The pituitary and the thyroid gland regulate the production of other hormones in the body. Sex and adrenal hormones are also regulated by a the pituitary. This may be the reason why ginseng has the reputation for acting as a rejuvenator and maintainer of healthy sexual organs.
The Chinese have a traditional and simple method of using ginseng. A piece of the dried root is kept in one’s pocket as a lifelong habit. When an energy hit is required, whether it be due to illness, fatigue, or when the zest for life starts to dwindle, the root is taken out and a small piece is chewed or used to brew a few pots of tea until vitality is renewed. The root is then left unused in the pocket until it is needed for the next challenge. Herein lies ginseng’s greatest usefulness — as a short-term energy booster.
Westerners seeking to benefit from its qualities should use it in the same way. Those of us with a healthy pituitary gland, who already race through our day with energy and enthusiasm to burn, and who carry no excess weight, will not need ginseng. Those heavier people who move a little slower may benefit from an occasional cup of ginseng tea.
Try a small amount, and if you gain a new outlook on life and have more energy, you may understand why the Chinese call it “wonder of the world.”
Editor’s note: Before taking any herbal treatment, please consult your physician. Due to documented presence of heavy metals in herbs coming from China, it is recommended that the reader avoid consuming herbs grown in China.