Common Name: Ginseng, Sang, Seng, Red-berry, Five Fingers, Root of Life (the name ginseng is a calque of the Chinese jen-shen which means “in the image of man”).
Scientific Name: Panax quinquefolius – The generic name is a derivative of the Greek word panakeia which means “healing all” from which the English word panacea is derived; quinque is Latin for five and folius is Latin for leaves, referring to the 5 leaves.
Potpourri: In Chinese herbalism, the age and shape of the ginseng root were important in establishing the medicinal value of the plant. The age of the root can readily be determined, as the ginseng plant produces only one stem during each growing season that emanates from a separate node on the root. The number of stem scars thus correlates to the age of the plant. The shape was important due to the Doctrine of Signatures, a belief that a plant has an appearance that is indicative of its potential medical application. Ginseng roots become twisted and wrinkled as they age, developing arm and leg-like appendages. The ideal ginseng resembles a human (jen-shen means in the image of man in Chinese) and is therefore a panacea (from which the genus name Panax derives) since it looks like the entire body. The older roots were also highly prized as it was believed that they conferred their longevity on the recipient; the plant age having been reported to be up to three hundred years old.
Chinese herbalism dates from about 3500 BCE, when a legendary agricultural leader named Shen Nung conducted experiments to determine the effects of various herbs, including ginseng. The first official Chinese Pharmacopoeia, written by the herbalist Shen Neng Pen T’sao in about 100 CE, provided a test for the potency of ginseng. If one person with a piece of ginseng root in his mouth and another person with his mouth empty walk together for a distance of five li (about two kilometers), the ginseng is good if the person with ginseng is not at all fatigued while the other is tired.
The P. ginseng native to Asia was correlated to the P. quinquefolius of North America in 1716, when the Jesuit missionary Petrus Jartoux visited Northern China and documented the widespread use of the Asian plant and that it was likely that the plant grew in Quebec, as the climates of the two regions were similar. Father Lafitau, a fellow Jesuit, followed up on Jartoux’s work and discovered North American ginseng growing near Montreal, precipitating an export trade with China that has persisted for almost three centuries. There is no direct evidence that ginseng was ever used by Native Americans as a medicinal herb.
Due to the high demand in East Asia, wild ginseng was over harvested to the point of scarcity in the 17th Century. The dearth led to the cultivation of P. ginseng in Manchuria and to a burgeoning trade in P. quinquefolius with North America. In 1773, the sloop Hingham sailed from Boston with 55 tons of ginseng that sold for about three dollars a pound. The lucrative trade in wild ginseng attracted early capitalists such as John Jacob Astor to the extent that the wild North American ginseng also became scarce. This resulted in cultivation of ginseng as a cash crop in the United States and Canada.
Cultivation of P. quinquefolius in North America as a domesticated crop began in the late 19th Century with little success due to disease and a nascent comprehension of the ginseng life cycle. In 1904, the Fromm brothers of Marathon County Wisconsin established the first successful plantation by carefully replicating the growth conditions in the wild. The export market burgeoned, with an estimated 21,000 tons of ginseng being shipped to East Asia between 1821 and 1983. China, Canada and the United States together produce 97 percent of the world’s ginseng crop; Wisconsin produces 90 percent of U. S. ginseng on about 4,000 acres of land.
The reduction in the populations of wild ginseng in both East Asia and North America resulted in its being listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in February 1977. Ginseng was listed as an Appendix II species “not necessarily currently threatened with extinction (however) may become so unless trade is subject to strict regulation.” Because of this, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service implemented export restrictions in 1999 to require permits that limit exports to mature ginseng roots only. In China, importers must be certified by two administrative bureaus and pay a tax of 40 percent.
The scarcity of wild ginseng and the problems associated with its cultivation are attributable to the methodical nature of the growth of the plant. It takes about three years for ginseng to grow enough to produce seeds for its own propagation. Indiscriminant harvesting of young plants thus leads to precipitous population declinations. In commercial operations, the seeds must be subjected to a one-year stratification process in damp forest soil before they will germinate. It takes five or six growing seasons to produce a root that is marketable.
Ginseng has been used in China for millennia as an herbal tonic for both mental and physical disorders, most especially for increasingly fertility and general strengthening of the body. The importance of ginseng to Chinese medicine is manifest in Daoist philosophy, which attributes good health to be the result of equilibrium between yin, the cooling force and yang, the strong, hot force. Ginseng is considered to be a regulator of the two forces and thus a key to a well balanced life. P. ginseng represents yang and P. quinquefolius represents yin, so that both types of ginseng are consumed for their complimentary effects.
The medicinal benefits of ginseng are subject to a considerable amount of international debate. In the absence of convincing research demonstrating the efficacy of ginseng as a drug, the United States Food and Drug Administration lists it as a “generally recognized safe food” or GRAS. Research reports have claimed that ginseng lowers cholesterol levels, regulates the metabolism to stabilize blood sugar levels, and reduces the effects of high stress. The South Koreans claim to have gotten better performance from racehorse fed with ginseng. Dr. Breckhman of the Soviet Academy of Sciences carried out extensive research and concluded that “ginseng stimulates both physical and mental activity and strengthens and protects the human organism when undergoing severe and/or physical strain.” Ginseng was subsequently used by Soviet cosmonauts and the Olympic team to reduce fatigue.
The primary active ingredient of ginseng is a triterpene saponin called ginsenoside, which has been shown to produce salubrious anticancer, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory results. There is no evidence, however, that it improves physical performance. The beneficial medicinal aspects of ginseng are attributed to its effect on the immune system; it enhances the production of phagocytes of cells that destroy invasive microorganisms. Human trials that have been conducted on ginseng have generally been inconclusive, some showing positive effects and some showing no effect. For example, a study of 227 healthy volunteers showed that 100 mg of a ginseng derivative resulted in a lower incidence of colds and higher levels of blood antibodies and natural killer cells. A study of 83 people showed no change in mood as measured by a psychological well-being test. In 45 patients with erectile dysfunction, use of ginseng improved sexuality.
Ginseng is consumed without prescription in the United States and China in a wide variety of products which are marketed by espousing the healing powers of the plant with frequently dubious claims. It is sold as a remedy for rheumatism, anemia, insomnia and just about any general psychological disorder. It comes in capsules, chewing gum, tea and candy and has been marketed as a cocktail and as a soft drink called “Ginseng Rush.” It is also purported to be an aphrodisiac. Fragrances of ginseng are used in perfumes, colognes, soaps, cosmetics and shampoo. An estimated six million Americans use ginseng products on a regular basis.