For nearly 300 years, the small perennial known as American Ginseng has been a healer, magic talisman, and major U.S. botanical export. Hunted to the point of exhausting wild stands, it has become more mystical as it has grown more elusive. Still, fetching hundreds of dollars per pound in the Orient and offering the promise of a long life and sexual vitality, this plant continues to stir desire in those who know it.
The common name “Ginseng” is most accurately applied only to plants in the genus Panax. The most well known Ginsengs are Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). Because the name Ginseng carries such authority and reverence in herbal medicine, many other plants have been given common names that contain “Ginseng,” often in association with the name of the country of their origin. Today, it is against U.S. law to market any plant outside of the genus Panax as Ginseng. Ginseng, meaning “man-root” due to its similarity to the human form, as it often possesses branched ‘arms,” “legs” and in some cases a center root reminiscent of a male appendage. The root and the plant are attributed with mystical powers due to the root’s appearance. The plant has been attributed with volition and the ability to hide from unworthy or mean-spirited Ginseng hunters. Interestingly, the Iroquois name for the plant, Garentoguen, also refers to the humanoid shape of the root.
A species native to eastern North America from Quebec to Manitoba and south to northern Florida, Alabama and Oklahoma, American Ginseng has long been an export commodity, sold primarily to China. Due to its immense popularity, it has been severely over-picked, leading to a drastic decline in wild populations. Because of this exploitation, it is listed by United Plant Savers as “At Risk” and exportation of the raw root is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Cultivation in the western hemisphere began in earnest at the turn of the twentieth century and has grown into an important agricultural business. It is commercially cultivated in Canada and the U.S., with heavy cultivation in Wisconsin. Herb Pharm’s American Ginseng liquid extract is prepared from fresh Panax quinquefolius root that has been certified organically grown in the Pacific Northwest.
In Native medicine, various North American Indian tribes used American Ginseng for both physical medicine and magic. It is reported that the Chippewa people used the root internally to treat stomach ailments and prolong the life of a dying person. Both uses are found for Ginseng in Chinese medicine. Creek Indians used it to treat excessive heat conditions and the lungs, uses also seen in Chinese medicine. They also reportedly carried the root to ward off evil spirits; a common cause of disease in many parts of the world.
American Ginseng became a popular and important herb in Chinese medicine starting in the 1700s. Most historical accounts attribute the first movement of American Ginseng eastward to a Jesuit missionary. Father Lafitau, a priest who had served in China and knew Chinese Ginseng from his time spent there, traveled to Canada to live with and convert the Iroquois. There he found a plant resembling Chinese Ginseng and sent samples back to China for evaluation. The samples were well received and a booming trade in American Ginseng soon began.
With China willing to buy all of the roots that could be supplied out of North America, the practice of Ginseng hunting grew wildly. Trappers and hunters, men, women and children all joined in the trade, supplying untold thousands of pounds annually to the Chinese. It is said that barges on the Ohio River were loaded with so much Ginseng root in addition to their normal furs and Goldenseal that they could barely float. Numerous Indian tribes also became involved in providing Ginseng for export, with Sioux-gathered Ginseng earning particular esteem for its quality.
Early botanists considered American Ginseng to be identical to Chinese or Asian Ginseng. Even the renowned botanist William Woodville, in his classic 1792 work Medical Botany, claims that the North American species has been found to “correspond exactly” to the Chinese species. Although hoping for a new source of their traditional Ginseng, Chinese herbalists quickly recognized that while this American root did have qualities in common with its Asian counterpart, it also had unique properties that made it a distinct therapeutic agent.
Rather than the warming, drier energy of Asian Ginseng, American Ginseng is a cooler, moisturizing tonic. While Chinese Ginseng is usually reserved for recuperation and building, American Ginseng can be used in hotter conditions to allay thirst, moisten, and revitalize the body. In Chinese medicine, American Ginseng is used to benefit the vital essence or Qi (pronounced “chee”), generate fluids and nourish Yin or the fluid, feminine and building aspects of our constitution. It is also used during recovery with symptoms such as weakness, thirst and irritability.
American Ginseng was not widely valued in mainstream American botanic medicine during the 1800s and early 1900s, although it was official as a secondary medicine in the U.S. from 1842 through 1882. The eminent Eclectic physician Finley Ellingwood recommended it as a nerve tonic, improving tone of the nerve centers and increasing cerebral capillary circulation. He prescribed it in failure of digestion associated with nervous prostration and general nerve irritation. The cornerstone Eclectic text, King’s American Dispensatory, calls American Ginseng an important remedy in nervous indigestion and mental exhaustion from overwork. Although not as stimulating as Asian Ginseng, American Ginseng does serve as an effective energizer and sexual tonic more suited to use in summer.
American Ginseng is classified as an adaptogenic herb. Adaptogens help the body to cope with non-specific, chronic stress, the type we commonly associate with modern life. Among these modern stressors are environmental pollution in the form of reduced air, water and food quality, chemical exposure and noise pollution, work and even the mental burden caused by the overabundance of information provided by the media. Chronic stress has a number of negative health effects including exhaustion, depression and impaired immunity. The effects of chronic stress are rather insidious, gradually weakening us at a foundational level, increasing our susceptibility and decreasing our vitality.
As the generic name Panax suggests, many have considered Ginseng to be a panacea or cure-all. While there is no true panacea, Ginseng is an important adaptogen and wonderful tonic that can have a positive impact on a wide range of health problems, serve in maintaining health and increasing vitality. It is a perfect tonic herb for the summer months and can be taken with other adaptogens and tonics or added to cooling drinks to help alleviate thirst and other effects of hot summer days.
Originally Published Summer 2004