The story behind ginseng is as remarkable as the root itself. In Ginseng, the Divine Root (Algonquin Books, 2006), David A. Taylor tracks the path of this fascinating plant — from the forests east of the Mississippi to the bustling streets of Hong Kong and the remote corners of China. It should be noted that the future viability of wild American ginseng is at risk because of several factors, including over harvesting and loss of habitat. Be careful about where you purchase American ginseng, and only buy it from companies that sustainably harvest this amazing medicinal plant. Find the history and uses of American ginseng in the following excerpt.
The Cherokees speak of the plant as a sentient being ... able to make itself invisible to those unworthy to gather it. — William Bartram, naturalist, Philadelphia, 1791
Resting on my desk is a single dried ginseng root. It looks small and insubstantial, a shriveled, pale-brown finger against a dark background. This one is four years old and came from a craft shop in Cherokee, North Carolina.
Few Americans would recognize this root as ginseng. Most people think of ginseng as a Chinese herb used in energy boosting food supplements. A visit to a health-food supermarket reveals a staggering array of them. The soft-drink aisle launches a rainbow brigade of shrink-wrapped bottles that list ginseng on their labels. The tea section has its own universe of ginseng items, from Yogi Tea to American Ginzing herbal tea. Even industry stalwart Lipton sells yellow boxes of Lemon Ginseng tea bags. In the dietary supplement section, shelves and shelves are devoted to ginseng capsules and tinctures of all kinds, often packaged with images of white-haired Asian philosophers or powerful dragons.
The root on my desk, however, is simply American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, a native to North American forests and virtually identical to its sister in Asia, Panax ginseng. Asian ginseng has indeed been used for several thousand years as a popular health tonic. Less known is the fact that for nearly three centuries, this surprising family resemblance between the two plants has led American ginseng to navigate a labyrinthine passage around the world.
This ginseng root holds other surprises. For one thing, it’s harder than you’d expect of an herb. Biting off a piece is like snapping a half-inch wooden dowel in two. Even before a small piece reaches my mouth, I smell the soil it came from. I place the root on my tongue and the tannic tang reminds me vaguely of cloves. Not exactly a pleasant taste, it’s been described as slightly aromatic, or like licorice root. The flavor evokes an earlier age, a time of sarsaparilla and anise seed. The root catches on my teeth, and within a minute its woody texture gives way to fibrous threads.
If you live near mountains in the eastern half of North America, you can wander the woods for days, hoping to find a ginseng plant in the wild. I have kept my eyes open on many hikes where the terrain looked right: shady, north-facing slopes, mossy rock outcroppings, clusters of hardwood trees. But ginseng is a shy creature. Novice visitors always need an introduction from someone who knows the herb well. It’s not like other famous forest residents. Oak and walnut trees are easily recognizable, lording over the forest like statuesque movie stars. Ginseng isn’t like that. It blends in easily with other plants, such as poison oak. Yet a Park Service botanist who has tromped the Great Smokies for years says that of all the rare plants in the woods—of all the ones that she could choose in the forest’s vastness—ginseng is her favorite. She enjoys tracking its above-ground life as it races through the seasons, from a single stem in spring, to a flush of leaves, to sports-car-red berries that last just a week in mid-summer. By fall, its leaves turn a pale yellow before the plant seems to disappear altogether.
Below the soil, however, the root (technically, a rhizome) continues to develop with painfully slow deliberation. Each year adds a wrinkle on its neck, establishing a unique signature, like a tree’s rings. And while that signature might seem meaningless hidden in the forest, it will gain significance later. For generations of collectors who call themselves ginsengers, that root and its wild signatures have been an excellent reason for an autumn walk in the woods. People in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, can still point to farms that were bought with ginseng money. More often, digging ginseng roots and selling them to a buyer in a bait shop down the road produced enough cash to buy Christmas gifts or school supplies. When the crunch of dead leaves and sunlight against bare tree trunks signaled darker days coming, ginseng promised that Christmas bonus.
American ginsengers through the centuries were happy to collect the roots to sell, but it was rare for them to chew the root themselves. And there’s still a good deal of debate among American doctors about whether ginseng does any good. Depending on who you ask, ginseng either works to catalyze the body’s vital energy, or it acts as a mild tonic and antioxidant, or it’s a fraud. Some U.S. researchers have found that certain chemicals in American ginseng may protect brain cells against degenerative conditions like Parkinson’s disease. No one denies, though, that ginseng has, at least, a very powerful effect on the imagination. Few elements of nature have inspired such an enormous range of creative responses as ginseng. This refers not only to farmers who have tried to grow it and researchers who have devised new ways to study the herb’s chemical compounds, but also to the hucksters who for so long hawked ginseng as an aphrodisiac. (The world of ginseng holds an abundance of lowbrow imagination. Seedy massage parlor owners in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Tong have figured out how to infuse ginseng into their sauna baths to boost revenues, and the ways to invoke ginseng in fraudulent mail-order schemes that promise better sexual performance are seemingly infinite.) Ginseng has inspired poems, stories, novels by Jack London and others, dance numbers, paintings, and the slide-guitar sounds of “Ginseng Sullivan, a song that recounts the trials of a soul digging ginseng in cold, hard ground.
Few plants have been as vividly anthropomorphized as the one known in Chinese as the “divine herb,” the “king of herbs,” and the “returned cinnabar with the wrinkled face.” Whether in an Appalachian ginsenger’s tale or a Chinese legend, stories about ginseng testify to an amazement at the plant’s capacity to endure, and they speak to our own aspirations for weathering change. Wild ginseng has grown scarce, and the ginsenger’s way of life, passed from father to son, may be passing. But in many places people still talk of the plant as having a thrill to it.
“I love to fool with that ginseng, George Albright, a digger in West Virginia, told me. “You don’t know what it’s going to do.
Albright had led me up a slope into the woods behind his house. A freight train echoed in the morning air, a reminder that we were in coal country, but soon we were surrounded by Appalachian deciduous forest, bright green after weeks of rain. Albright had hunted ginseng in this part of West Virginia for over fifty years. As a boy, he spent most of his time in the woods, and now that he was retired, he had returned to them. He knew that pound for pound, wild ginseng was one of the most valuable commodities in those mountains, and that the plant’s value had put it on the endangered species list. He talked about how the root was saved only by being so hard to find. Some of his neighbors speculate that Albright has an extra gland that helps him find it.
After we walked a distance under the forest canopy, he stopped and bent down low. “Here, he said. Suddenly we were peering down on a four-prong ginseng plant. Its slender stem rose about six inches above the ground and branched into four smaller ones, each with a cluster of five arrow-shaped leaves. Albright set about the careful operation of unearthing the root, gently scraping away the dirt. When he finally held it up, the six-inch-long root twisted in every direction, with odd and irregular bends. A ginseng dealer at the bait shop down the road might pay Albright a few dollars for it, but a customer in a shop in San Francisco or Hong Kong would pay at least ten times more for a wild root like that.
In fact, this was another creative response to ginseng. Strictly speaking, this slender prize wasn’t wild ginseng. Yes, it was growing without fertilizers or crop rows in its native forest, but it had help: George had sown the seed himself. This was “simulated wild ginseng, an ingenious wrinkle in the market that could pay off for ginsengers and breathe new life into American forests. George had made a domesticated plant look wild, and got a better price for it. Since boyhood, ginseng had given him a way to look at his forest with a sense of magic and purpose. Now he repaid it with a creative approach that made it more abundant.
Not far from George Albright’s land, Daniel Boone had dug ginseng in the 1780s and sold it to Philadelphia merchants with ships bound for China. Ever since that time, American ginseng has ridden waves of prosperity, crime, and human frailty. The ginseng trade fed the fortune of America’s first millionaire, ensnared peasants in back-breaking work, promised long life to kings in Europe and Asia, and lured others to prison and even death.
Ginseng’s expressive contortions invite the attention of millions. That shape! That aroma! The expectation of a quickened pulse, and the scent of the soil. Ginseng takes people to the limits of speech. How do you describe a taste precisely? How do you translate vital energy? “Ginseng’s mystery defies logic and Western thinking, Bob Beyfuss, an agricultural agent, told me. “It satisfies a need that cannot be defined, much like sex. There have been houses that have burned down where the most grieved loss was an old ginseng root in a glass case. “I can remember a whole lot of times digging ’sang, one ginsenger told me, “but I can’t remember much else from when I was little.
There are several ways to take ginseng root as a simple tonic, besides the many packaged products that list ginseng as an ingredient. This section is not a prescription, however. Before using ginseng or any other medicinal herb, you should consult a certified herbalist, a nutritionist, and/or your physician.
When buying dried ginseng, choose firm, light-colored roots and avoid shriveled ones. Roots usually come washed and dried. You can store them in a sealed plastic bag in your refrigerator’s crisper for up to ten days. In his book American Ginseng: Green Gold, Scott Persons notes that the optimal daily dose is 2–3 grams per day—roughly equivalent to a section of dried root about the size of an almond sliver or your little fingernail.
The two most common ways to prepare ginseng are as chewable root slices or as tea. Dried root slices can be chewed like a kind of licorice or jerky. For a pot of ginseng tea, place a dozen or so thin root slices in about a quart of boiling water, using more hot water as needed. People often add honey or sugar to improve the taste.
A third way to prepare ginseng is to place a sliver of root in a broth-style soup and let it simmer for an hour or so. For ginseng-flavored honey, place a whole, washed root in a honey jar. You can make a stronger concoction by placing a slim, whole fresh root in a bottle of vodka.
In traditional Chinese medicine, ginseng is part of a balanced diet that is based not on food groups but on yin and yang. In this view, everything—and everyone—consists, to varying degrees, of yin and yang. What constitutes a balanced diet depends on whether a person is predominantly yin or predominantly yang. People who are more yang are often outgoing, sometimes aggressive, and more likely to feel warm and to suffer from stress, congestion, constipation, headaches, heart disease, and other yang-type illnesses, according to Dr. Maoshing Ni, quoted in New Choices in Natural Healing for Women by Barbara Loecher. Yin people, on the other hand, tend to be calm and reflective, sensitive to cold, and more vulnerable to fatigue, obesity, and diarrhea.
Foods that have a warming effect, such as chili peppers, are mostly yang. Watermelon and other foods that cool the body are mostly yin. Asian ginseng is said to be yang; American ginseng, yin. There are also neutral foods, such as brown rice and lettuce, that neither warm nor cool the body. A healthy diet includes all three types in balanced proportions. “Generally speaking, such a diet is heavy on grains and vegetables; uses a lot of beans and soy products; includes some fruits, nuts and seeds; and uses protein, like red meat, poultry and fish, as a condiment, says Dr. Ni. The menu also changes with the seasons.
From Ginseng, the Divine Root: The Curious History of the Plant that Captivated the World by David A. Taylor. © 2006 by David A. Taylor. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.
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