American Ginseng: History, Hunting and Uses

While being considered an at risk plant in the wild, American ginseng holds many uses, and can be found for purchase through companies that harvest this herb sustainably.

| June 2014

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.

American Ginseng

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.

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