With the increased popularity of using American ginseng for medicinal purposes in the past few decades, the price has skyrocketed. Thanks to poachers and other pressures, the wild plant is disappearing in some places.
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is in the ginseng, or ivy, plant family (Araliaceae), composed of 700 species worldwide within 70 genera. This species is native to eastern North America; in Virginia, it is infrequent in the mountains and Piedmont and rare in the Coastal Plain, according to “Flora of Virginia.”
The biology and ecology of wild American ginseng is still not that well understood and differs somewhat from that of cultivated ginseng. It apparently prefers rich, moist soil and fairly heavy shade, so is most likely to be found on east- or north-facing forested slopes. Sally Anderson, a long-time member and current board member of the Virginia Native Plant Society, adds that the plant prefers soil that is slightly acid and high in calcium and phosphorous.
Collecting American ginseng in the wild and cultivating it require a certain amount of skill, patience and luck. Despite its apparent preferences, the plant can be both picky and highly adaptable, often showing up in unlikely spots and not showing up where expected. Anderson says American ginseng planted at the Virginia State Arboretum more than a decade ago, for example, has not done well, even though the conditions seemed right: “It’s really puny.”
American ginseng is slow-growing but long-lived, maturing in five to eight years and able to live 100 years, perhaps longer. Most of the year, it blends well into the forest understory. Eight to 15 inches tall, it has three pointed leaves, each with four to five leaflets, fanning out opposite each other from the main stem. In July and August, clusters of six to 10 small, inconspicuous, greenish-white flowers appear at the top of the main stem.
In autumn, the flowers morph into the bright crimson (occasionally purple) berries that make ginseng far easier to spot. This is also the best season for harvesting the root, when it is “prime” and “plump,” according to Bradford Angier in his “Field Guide to Wild Medicinal Plants.” Angier describes the root as being a half to 1 inch thick, “spindle-shaped,” at least 2 to 3 inches long and “prominently marked with circles or wrinkles.” He adds that it is covered with thick, pale yellowish-white or brownish-white bark.
Mucilaginous and aromatic, the root’s taste is variously described as being “of the earth,” spicy, harsh or sweet, and like cloves, licorice or radishes.
American ginseng can grow or shrink in size, or remain dormant for a season, making its population dynamics hard to predict, and the age of plants hard to discern without digging them up. Growth rings on the root are the best indicators of a plant’s age.
The word Panax comes from the Greek for “all-healing,” from which the Latin word “panacea” was derived. According to the Pennsylvania State Extension, this genus includes some of what is considered “the world’s premier panacea-adaptogen-tonic plants,” which means it provides a cure-all that enhances adaptation to stress and improves strength and well-being.
Asians have long used Asian ginseng (P. ginseng) and Siberian “ginseng” (Eleutherococcus senticosus, which is not actually a ginseng but shares some of its medicinal properties), but their medicinal effects differ from American ginseng, according to NIH. Asians have added our American counterpart as a complement to their native species.
The chemical constituents believed to be most responsible for the beneficial properties of ginseng are known as ginsenosides, which are believed by some people to be more highly concentrated in wild stock than in farmed varieties, according to PSE.
Although American ginseng has been used for an exhaustive list of medicinal purposes in North America dating back to before Europeans arrived, is it really effective?
According the National Institutes of Health, the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, which rates the effectiveness of natural medicines on the basis of scientific evidence, finds that American ginseng is “possibly effective” for diabetes and respiratory tract infections and “possibly ineffective” for improving athletic performance, and that there is “insufficient evidence to rate” the plant for a host of other medicinal purposes that it is used for.
In Chinese and some Native American cultures, the ginseng root is considered magical because of its shape. The name “ginseng” comes from the Chinese word for “man-root.” At about two years, the plant’s root forks, creating what looks like two legs. Fairly large rootlets resembling appendages grow out from the “trunk” of the root, and a small knob is also at the top. David Taylor, in Smithsonian Magazine, writes that this growth pattern creates “a gnarly approximation of the human body, achieved only by wild varieties.”
The more human-looking, the more likely the root is to be endowed with magical properties and therefore to be more highly valued. In “Plants of Life, Plants of Death,” Frederick J. Simoons writes that, in traditional Chinese medicine, ginseng is believed to contain “the life-giving power of earth.” Rituals and other precautions are required to avoid the “great personal danger” the collection of the root poses.
The Cherokee spoke of the root “as a sentient being . . . able to make itself invisible to those unworthy to gather it,” naturalist William Bartram wrote in 1791. “They so valued ginseng that they dug up only one in four plants and replenished each harvested root with a bead, a prayer and a new seed.”
According to the Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE, at pubs.ext.vt.edu; search on the publication number, “354-313”), which cites U.S. Fish and Wildlife (FWS) studies, poaching, rather than legal collecting, is likely the biggest factor in the disappearance of American ginseng. Poaching is also likely a factor in the decline in average plant stature, and the decreasing age and genetic variability in some populations. (See the story about recent anti-poaching efforst in Shenandoah National Park on page A1.)
With certain restrictions on international trade of wild American ginseng being developed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in the early ’70s, permits are now required to collect the plant, which are handled on the federal level by FWS.
Poachers may not be the only cause of declines in wild ginseng populations. In a study published in Science in February 2005, West Virginia University conservation biologist James B. McGraw, with graduate student Mary Ann Furedi, found deer may be a bigger factor. The only way to save American ginseng from extinction, the researchers concluded, is to reduce deer populations — by half.
Encouraging cultivation of American ginseng, primarily through planting seed in suitable forest, is one strategy being used by agricultural extension services to take pressure off wild populations. Such farming is growing in popularity among landowners, according to VCE, which offers instructions (also in publication 354-313).
The significance of American ginseng goes beyond its medicinal, economic, cultural and ecological value, according to Wild Ginseng Conservation, a group of scientists monitoring the plant throughout the United States:
“After many years of ongoing research, ginseng has become an important model species — a sensitive indicator of the effects of contemporary global and regional environmental change for plants in the eastern deciduous forest.”
© 2015 Pam Owen
James Duke’s root rock
James Duke, a USDA biologist, was the ACEER (Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research) Legacy Award winner in 2013. He is noted for his study of American ginseng and the songs he wrote about them, including “Ginseng,” which contains the following verses:
Makes an older man cocksure
And a younger man endure;
Makes an older woman younger
And a younger woman hunger.
Ginseng, sing gin!
Sing a little thing and swing!
Sing a little thing, ginseng!
Searching for the Holy Grail
On the Appalachian trail
When I found the herb they call ginseng
Growing deep down in the woods
That’s where I got the goods
The herb that turns the autumn into spring.
(See him sing the whole song on YouTube).
Duke is also credited with making the following comment about ginseng:
“I’m not sure ginseng is any better for you or me than a carrot, but just in case the Chinese are right, I grow it in my garden. I stick a root in a jug of gin and call it Old Duke’s Gin and Ginseng.”