My daughter, Gretchen, and I were roaming around Chinatown in San Francisco recently and happened to enter Superior Trading Company. The store is filled with Chinese medicines and herbs – some in barrels, some in glass jars, and many inside glass front cabinets. Everything was fascinating to look at, but descriptions were written in Chinese characters and we had to ask questions about the products and their uses. Ginseng, in particular, was plentiful and was offered in many forms. We’d heard of ginseng before and of its magical restorative properties. But what was it really?
I have since learned that ginseng is a slow-growing perennial herb with fleshy roots, belonging to the genus Panax. The genus name Panax means “all heal” in Greek and refers to the herb as a panacea for many ailments. The aromatic root looks like a small parsnip that forks as it matures, resemblinga “Y” or the shape of a person. The plant grows 6″ to 18″ tall, usually bearing three leaves, each with three to five leaflets two to five inches long. The root of the plant is the part that is used. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) grows in North America (United States and Canada) and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) grows in Asia (primarily in South Korea and China). Currently, Wisconsin produces nearly 95% of American ginseng. (The owners of Superior Trading Company were the first to export American Ginseng from Wisconsin to China in 1959.)
Ginseng root is red, white or wild and is most often available dried, whole, or sliced. Red ginseng has been peeled, heated through steaming at standard boiling temperatures of 100 °C (212 °F), and then dried or sun-dried. White ginseng, native to America, is fresh ginseng which has been dried without being heated. It is peeled and dried to reduce the water content to 12% or less. White ginseng air-dried in the sun may contain less of the therapeutic constituents. It is thought by some that enzymes contained in the root break down these constituents in the process of drying. Drying in the sun bleaches the root to a yellowish-white color. Wild ginseng grows naturally and is relatively rare due to its high demand in recent years. Wild ginseng can be either Asian or American, and can be processed to be red ginseng. There are ginseng growing programs in a number of states, including in Maine, where the ginseng certification program facilitates the export of American ginseng while meeting the requirements of the Convention for International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES).
Panax ginseng was discovered over 5000 years ago in the mountains of Manchuria, China. Although probably originally used as food, it quickly became revered for its strength-giving and rejuvenating powers and its human shape became a powerful symbol of divine harmony on earth. The benefits of ginseng were first documented during China’s Liang Dynasty (220 to 589 AD). Chinese legend has it that early emperors used to use it as a remedy for all illnesses and not only consumed it, but also used it in soaps, lotions and creams.
In 1716 a Jesuit priest, working among the Iroquois in Canada, heard of a root highly valued by the Chinese. Because he felt the environment of French Canada closely resembled that of Manchuria, he began searching for examples of this amazing herb growing in the Canadian hardwood forests and after three months of searching he discovered American ginseng growing near Montreal.
Medical Uses & Warnings
Ginseng root is used energy drinks and herbal tea as an aphrodisiac, stimulant, type II diabetes treatment, to boost energy, lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels, reduce stress and cure sexual dysfunction in men.
The optimal dose of ginseng is two to three grams per day, or a slice of root about the size of an almond sliver, or if using powder, a capsule of powder. The root can be brewed and taken as tea, simmered for one hour in chicken soup to make a healing broth, aged for three months in a quart of liquor and consumed as a nightcap or it may be simply chewed.
Doctors do not recommend taking ginseng along with antidepressants which are called monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), because it can cause manic episodes and tremors. Ginseng should also never be taken along with blood pressure medication, heart medications or with drugs that affect blood clotting (such as warfarin or aspirin.)
Symptoms of gross overdose with Panax ginseng may include nausea, vomiting, restlessness, urinary and bowel incontinence, fever, increased blood pressure, increased respiration, decreased sensitivity and reaction to light, decreased heart rate, cyanotic (blue) facial complexion, red facial complexion, seizures, convulsions, and delirium.
“As ginseng prices soar, diggers take to the backcountry”. Fox News. 2012-09-28.
Chen, John K., and Tina T. Chen. Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology.