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By Emily Grafton
When I first became interested in botany in the early 1970s, discovering a patch of wild ginseng in a shady mountain cove was a thrill. As a young college student, I listened with awe at the legends of curative powers associated with this plant. During that period, a local herbalist spoke each year to botany students providing a novel history lesson on ginseng's medicinal properties. But serious botanists and medical professionals scoffed that ginseng was anything more than snake oil.
Since those college days decades ago, the usefulness of ginseng in American culture has swayed with changes in medical philosophy, though herbalists never entirely discarded it. A new wave in acceptance of ginseng and other herbal medicines surfaced in the 1980s with ginseng showing up on the shelves of health food stores and even in relatively mainstream Celestial Seasonings tea. Many studies have been conducted to ascertain the healing attributes of ginseng, but despite all the research, controversy still surrounds authenticity of its attributes.
Today, herbalists and physicians in the western world use ginseng to treat everything from fatigue to hypertension. Its most widely accepted and well-documented use is tied to its adaptogenic effects--its ability to enhance the body's overall resistance to physical stress. This may include everything from increasing one's stamina to withstanding cold temperatures. When ginseng is taken in large quantities however, it can cause hypertension. In low doses, it is reasonably safe for healthy adults. Despite all the research, obviously, more needs to be done.
It is uncertain when the first pre-historic human experimented with Chinese ginseng ( Panax panax ) , but the first written Chinese Herbal (encyclopedia of medicinal plants) appeared in the first century AD. The Shen-nung pen-ts'ao-ching stated that ginseng or “ schinseng ” could boost longevity and increase one's endurance. The text stated that it was good for “enlightening the mind, and increasing the wisdom. Continuous use leads one to longevity.” Chinese herbalists also believed that ginseng functioned as an aphrodisiac. No doubt, this attribute led to an even higher demand for the product.
The expression schinseng meant “essence of the earth in the form of man .” This poetic title relates to the human-like form of the root of the genus Panax . Ancient cultures on all continents independently evolved the belief that the shapes of plants or plant parts were a clue to their curative powers. The Panax root is shaped like the human form, thus its use as a cure-all or panacea for the whole body. In the west this philosophy was formally called the Doctrine of Signatures.
Publication of the Chinese Herbal popularized the use of the plant and this knowledge spread rapidly throughout northern China. Powerful lords and eventually the centralized government soon controlled regions of ginseng habitat. The plant became as precious as gold, and massive armies fought for control of ginseng territories. By the sixth century wild Chinese ginseng had become scarce.
American ginseng ( Panax quinquefolius ) was used by native Americans for similar purposes, but was not accorded any special status. In 1714, a Canadian Jesuit named Father Lafitau received a dried plant of Chinese ginseng from a colleague, Father Jartoux . Working in China, Father Jartoux asked his Canadian counterpart to see if it grew in the New World. Father Lafitau discovered American ginseng and shipped several pounds to China where the Jesuits received $5 per pound.