Ginseng is a deciduous shrub in the Araliaceae family. It’s primarily cultivated for it’s aromatic, fleshy taproot in China and Korea, where it is known as Red or Chinese Ginseng, and Wisconsin and British Columbia, where it is known as White or American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). Panax ginseng can be found in the damp woodlands of Manchuria and Korea, and Panax quinquefolius was once found in the rich, cool woodlands of Eastern North America; years of over-harvesting have near wiped out the wild populations and it is almost entirely found in cultivation now. Chinese Ginseng has an aromatic root that grows two or more feet in length and is divided at the end. It has a simple, glabrous stem with a whorl of palmately compound leaves that have 5 oblong-ovate leaflets with finely double serrate margins. American Ginseng is similar in appearance to Chinese Ginseng, but the root is more spindle shaped and forked, with it’s leaflets in oblong-ovate shapes with coarsely serrate to dentate margins. Ginseng flowers in the summer after it’s third year in a solitary umbel of greenish yellow flowers that gives way to a few red drupe-like berries. It’s usually started by seed, as root cuttings can often contain fungus or disease, and take up to a year to germinate. It needs shady locations and humus rich soils with a pH between 5.0 and 6.0. High quality ginseng needs to grow for at least six years before it’s mature enough to harvest.
Panax ginseng is an anti-depressive, improves mental and physical performance, and increases resistance. Rather than treating a specific problem, Ginseng acts as an adaptogen by strengthening the endocrine, metabolic, circulatory, and digestive systems. Its thought to be able to move a persons vitality to their physical peak while generally increasing vitality, appetite, and raising lowered blood pressure back to it’s normal level. Its a remedy for general exhaustion and weakness, and depression caused by physical debility, and is taken to normalize menstruation and ease childbirth. It’s also thought to be an aphrodisiac, and decreases physical and mental stress by increasing oxygen-carrying red blood cells, immune-strengthening white blood cells, and eliminating toxins. It’s been used to treat high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, liver damage, and emphysema. It’s also a good demulcent, helpful with coughs, colds, and chest conditions. Ginseng roots older than two years are powerful yang tonics. Panax quinquefolius has similar adaptogenic and energy promoting properties, but it is an overall neutral or cooling herb and can serve as a good yin tonic and can be taken in the summertime for those who feel the Chinese Ginseng is overstimulating or overheating in the warmer months. For rejuvenative purposes, ginsengs combine well with Ashwaganda. Skeptics claim Ginseng does little more than cause diarrhea, hormone imbalance, and high blood pressure, but this may be due to improper usage; as with most powerful herbs, it should not be taken regularly.
Folk Uses and History
Ginseng has been held in high regard for thousands of years by the Chinese, and is considered a panacea for all ailments. It was prominently featured in the Pen Tsao Ching (The Classic of Herbs), the first Chinese Herbal written by the emperor-sage Shen Nung around 3000 BC, who recommended it for increasing wisdom and enlightening the mind. It was, and still is, believed to be a whole body tonic, especially for the weak and the elderly. In the Early 1700’s French Jesuits returned from Southern Canada with Ginseng root in tow, and the French realized what a lucrative jackpot they’d hit. They began selling it to the Chinese for exorbitant prices, and soon people were discovering Ginseng growing as far south as Georgia, where it briefly became popular with the colonists interested in it’s claims as a sexual enhancer. By the 1740’s, Ginseng was becoming the most valuable export of the colonies, and foragers were tearing up the woods looking for it for the 1$ a pound bounty. Native Americans at the time were said to have learned from the Jesuit traders to use Ginseng in decoctions to relieve nausea and vomiting, and as an ingredient in love charms and potions. The roots that are shaped more like humans were, and still are held in higher value. Today, Ginseng is rare in the wild, but still can be found in the woods of Appalachia. In Korea, China, and Taiwan, a famous herbal soup of Ginseng, goji berries, red jujubes, and chicken is a popular and delicious remedy for winter time health, known in Korea as Samgyetang.
The dried root is often chewed, or made into a decoction of 1/2 a teaspoon of the powdered root per cup of water, boiled and simmered gently for 10 minutes, drunk three times a day. Ginseng should not be taken continuously.
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