A Traditional medicine of diverse roots
Ginseng has been used for thousands of years as a powerful herbal medicine with almost magical properties. Both Asians and American Indians recognized its remarkable ability to treat a variety of conditions, tone, and invigorate. Understanding the nature of the plant, Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who formalized the system of binomial nomenclature, gave it the genus name Panax, derived from the Greek πᾶν (pân or “all”) and ἄκος (ákos or “cure”).
While 19 different plants are commonly called “ginseng,” only eight fall within the genus Panax. Panax ginseng, also called Asian ginseng, is the source of most commercial product. Its use is concentrated in China, where it is regarded as one of the most important herbs in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
Ginseng is represented in Chinese by the characters 人参, rénshēn, literally “man root,” due to its shape frequently resembling a human form. In TCM, the root is believed to increase qi (氣), or energy, making it effective in treating a wide range of conditions. TCM has regarded ginseng as a powerful tonic for over 5000 years. Longevity, reduced stress, digestive toning, and boosted brain-power are some of the many powers attributed to this treasured herb.
As the news of ginseng’s merits spread, and the sources in China were depleted, the search began for similar species in other areas. In the 1700s American ginseng was “discovered,” and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) came to be imported widely as an additional source for China.
A pair of French Jesuits were responsible for American ginseng reaching China. Father Jartoux, based in China, wrote about ginseng in a report on medicinal herbs. Father Lafitau, based in Canada, read the text, suspected that the similar growing conditions in Canada would likely offer similar plants, and engaged American Indians to help him search out the plant which they had known and utilized for centuries.
Lafitau’s 1716 discovery of ginseng in Canada may have influenced the formation of the United States. Soon after the valued plant was found to be thriving in the Americas, it became a lucrative trade item, especially in the Appalachian Mountain region. Exporting hundreds of thousands of pounds per year to China provided a welcome and unmatched income for the young colonists and the budding country.
In 1784, George Washington is said to have noted, “In passing through the mountains, I met a number of persons and pack horses going over the mountain with ginseng.” That same year, the first US international trade ship left New York Harbor, bound for China carrying more than 30 tons of American ginseng.
Over-harvest, scarcity, and protection
With no thought given to preservation of this valuable resource, it eventually began to diminish at an alarming rate. In the 25 to 30 years following 1865, exports dropped from 400,000 to 216,000 pounds per year, with prices simultaneously tripling. Since the plant takes many years to mature, and harvesting the root kills the plant, over-harvest is a serious threat. On top of that, harvest was being performed year-round, which prevented plants from re-seeding before they were taken. When the plant became scarce in the Appalachians, “diggers” moved en masse to Arkansas, where there was an abundance.
Continued over-harvest and increased demand for the medicinal root nearly drove the plant to extinction in 1970.
Today the plant is protected by regulation in the US, where roots are now cultivated for export and domestic use; yet the wild ginseng is still seen as the superior product. 21 of the 34 states in which the plant can be found list it as a conservation concern, while the rest allow the harvest and export of the wild plant in accordance with federal and CITES mandates. Still, at several hundreds of dollars per pound, many foragers are willing to risk the penalties (heavy fines or imprisonment) for illegal harvest.
Ironically, part of the regulation for harvesting ginseng thwarts its survival. In order to determine the age of the plant (for monitoring purposes), the whole root and neck are required to be harvested. Mature specimens will have small secondary roots branching out from the neck and roots. If the root were cut below the neck, leaving some small roots, one could replant the plant after harvest and preserve the plant, but this is deemed illegal.
Patient gardeners can grow ginseng at home
Growing your own ginseng is completely legal, however, and your home harvest will be regulated only by you, yourself. The plant spans a broad hardiness zone of 3 to 7.
Anyone familiar with growing asparagus knows it is a big time commitment. Ginseng, too, requires at least five years of growth before it can be harvested. Some believe that it does not reach full potency until it is seven years old. The seeds themselves may take 18 months to germinate. Other than time, however, you don’t stand to lose much in this endeavor. Cultivation of ginseng is relatively low maintenance and growing conditions are easily met.
Ginseng seed is widely available at a low cost. The seeds need to be cold stratified for six months, but you can also find pre-stratified seed for sale. Seedlings and bare-root plants are more expensive, with the cost growing along with the age of the plant, but they will give you a head start amounting to years.
Choose a sloping wooded (or mostly-shaded) area in a location that is unlikely to have competition from weeds or the disturbance of foot traffic.The conditions can be naturally existing, or created in a raised and protected bed. The plant can also be grown indoors if kept out of direct sunlight.Sow your seeds in the fall about 1 ½ inches deep. Young plants should be planted in the spring at about 3 inches deep.
Once it gets started, ginseng does not require much care. Moist conditions are preferred, so water your outdoor plants during extended dry periods. Although weeds may not present a problem in wooded areas, do prevent your ginseng from being crowded out by faster growing plants.
Seeds should germinate the year after sowing, and plants will start flowering and fruiting after their first year of growth. The root, however, reaches maturity only after five years or more. Always harvest in the fall, as this allows fruit to form and seeds to develop. The small red berries can be eaten and have their own medicinal value, while their seeds can be planted to ensure a continuous crop.
As mentioned above, it is not necessary to kill your plants to harvest the roots. By severing below the neck, as long as the neck has some small roots, you can plant it right back in the soil and let it develop new roots.
Fresh ginseng is a special treat that can be chewed raw or used in teas, soups and other dishes. To preserve it for later use, it should be dried. According to TCM, however, casual use of this powerful root is not recommended.
As you may know, traditional Chinese medicine focuses on qi, or energy, and its circulation through meridians, or energy channels. Since the toning properties of ginseng are attributed to its ability to move qi to the organs or areas that need strengthening, TCM doctors caution against using the remedy unless “evil qi” is not present. Evil qi is seen as the root of disease, and the addition of this powerful tonic would only serve to enhance what is present. Therefore, application in the presence of evil qi is liable to strengthen the illness.
To resolve this issue, the root is only prescribed with other herbal remedies which serve to eliminate the evil qi. Once the negative influence is expelled, the ginseng can safely do its work of strengthening and revitalizing.
Some TCM practitioners, like Dr. Shi-hua Wu, in D.C’s Chinatown, believe that ginseng can be harmful to healthy individuals. Dr. Wu says, “Ginseng, in my opinion—don’t use it if you don’t really have to, especially for young people.” The powerful tonic is commonly reserved for serious or life-threatening illness, and prescribing it to the young and healthy may not only be unnecessary, but also harmful.
As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”