Panax Ginseng (Asian species) Panax quinquefolius (North American Species)
Synonyms: Yen-Shen, Manroot, red-berry and five fingers, garantoquen
Though everybody knows the name, few people know what the plant looks like. Ginseng is a member of the ivy family and one of those herbs that serves as a classic example of the workings of the doctrine of signatures. The shape of the root is said to resembles that of a human body - the signature clearly indicates that it will benefit not one part, but act as a tonic for the whole body. Its 5 fingered leaves are supposed to be reminiscent of a human hand, (or the five elements), while its long life span is thought to transfer longevity to those who partake of it. Indeed, some claim that this herb can grow to 100 years of age. To determine the age of a particular root one can count its growth rings. The root develops very slowly, producing only one aerial shoot per year, which leaves a scar (growth ring) on the upper part of the rhizome. The root is fleshy, but rarely exceeds 3 inches in length and about ½ -1 inch in thickness. It is often bifurcate and of a yellowish-brownish colour, hence the comparison to a human body. It has a faint aromatic smell with a flavour reminiscent of ginger or liquorice, that soon changes to mild aromatic bitterness. The single aerial shoot grows to a height of about 60 - 80 cm and is deep red in colour. The Chinese species grows somewhat bigger. The leaves are palmate with five narrow, finely serrated leaflets; the two lateral ones being shorter than the others. The flowers of the Chinese species are greenish white, those of the American one pink. The berry is red. Given the right growing conditions Ginseng grows relatively easily from seed, but takes a long time to develop to maturity. It does not develop seed until the third year, the earliest age at which roots are harvested.
Ginseng is a native to the forests of northern China and north Korea. The American species grows in the woodlands of the eastern United States. It requires a rich humus soil and shade, a factor that makes cultivation tricky, though there is a ready market for the root, which is unlikely to ever diminish.
Victim of its own popularity, Ginseng, though once abundant in Asia and North America, has long since become rare in the wild - to the point that it is now protected and heavy fines are imposed on the gathering of wild roots. In China the root has been celebrated for several thousand years as the most important medicinal plant of all. Subsequently, it has been cultivated there commercially for a long time, but not enough to satisfy demand, which is why it imports large amounts from North America. North America became aware of the great value Asians placed on this plant by way of missionaries stationed in China, who had learned about the amazing properties of this plant. Although American Ginseng is not exactly the same as the Asian species, the two are pretty close and exports began in the 1700s. But as the roots are slow to grow, supplies soon dwindled from over 500 000 tons a year to just over 100 000 tons. Now commercial growing is also promoted in the US, but so far only few agriculturists pursue this crop. Though profitable in the long run it requires much effort and specialist knowledge to handle such a plant and the pay-off is not immediate.
Ginseng is a forest species and it requires shade to grow, thus open field cultivation is not possible. Woodland conditions must be simulated. Native North Americans, who have also long valued this plant, called it garantoquen, which means 'root shaped like a man'. Being well aware of the slow growing cycles of this precious root they made sure to reseed and help existing plants to propagate and spread to ensure continued supplies. Commercial gatherers sadly often don't possess such foresight and instead are only interested in the penny they can make today.
While ginseng appears to be an ideal herb for many ailments that afflict modern US citizens, its main market there is for export. Recently it has gained popularity as an herbal remedy and additive in the nutraceutical market, but it has been slow to catch on. The American Pharmacopeia does not list it. The reason is that no conclusive studies have been produced. In fact the studies that are undertaken come up with vague and somewhat subjective observations, such as 'improved enjoyment or quality of life, aphrodisiac, increased energy and power of concentration and similar effects that sound interesting, but are hard to quantify.
The root contains more than 25 saponin triterpenoid glycosides called "ginsenosides" many of which appear to counteract each other. This has puzzled western scientists, but Chinese doctors regard it as prove of Ginseng's effectiveness. They consider it a panacea, an all-heal or universal remedy that improves all ailments, even though it cannot be proven to affect any one in particular. The reason is that it is a tonic and adaptogen. Chinese medicine claims that it improves the overall circulation of Chi and thus acts as a tonic for the whole body. Almost all Chinese herbal compounds contain ginseng. Experts indulge in a veritable 'science of ginsengology' claiming different uses and actions for each part of the root and method of preparation, of which there are many: dried, sugared, boiled, steamed, extracted with alcohol or even added to soups, to name but a few. Its value also depends on its age and on how closely its shape resembles that of a human body.
At one point the Chinese valued ginseng more than gold, but really there is no price that can be put on radiant health and well-being and so Ginseng's gifts are priceless. To show this herb the honour and respect it deserves, we must make sure that wild populations are protected and only use Ginseng from cultivated sources.
As a 'man-shaped' panacea ginseng is also used magically as an amulet for good fortune, prosperity, longevity and fertility.
Mostly in the autumn. Minimum age at which roots can be harvested is 3 years. The older they are the higher is their potency.
Vitamins A, B-6 and Zinc, which help to support the immune system. Ginseng contains more than 25 saponin triterpenoid glycosides called "ginsenosides" with apparently opposing actions. These are believed responsible for the adaptogenic effects, which allow the body to utilize those properties it needs in order to regain its balance. The glycosides appear to restore adrenal balance when adrenal glands are over-stimulated or exhausted due to stress.
Adaptogen, tonic, circulatory stimulant, nervous tonic
Ginseng is regarded as a tonic. It is not only used to improve a wide variety of health conditions, but also as a preventative. Chinese medicine includes Ginseng in numerous formulas for its overall balancing effects. Western science has not yet been able to clearly establish the working mechanisms of this herb, though its beneficial effects are beyond doubt. Ginseng is used whenever the body is exposed to environmental, emotional or mental stress. Stress has many negative effects on the body, but one of the worst and most insidious ones is the over-stimulation and subsequent exhaustion of the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands produce adrenaline, the so called 'fight or flight' hormone, in response to stress situations. When stress exerts its negative effects for too long the hormone becomes depleted and the glands ability to produce it is also diminished. As a result the body lacks the energy it needs to face even ordinary stress situations, becomes fatigued, unable to concentrate, emotionally unstable and easily depressed and the immune system is also weakened. The normal sex drive is reduced and there is neither lust nor lustre in the individual. Ginseng improves the function of the adrenal gland and thus helps the body to cope with these manifold symptoms of stress. Ginseng also improves the circulation and strengthens the heart. Improved circulation means improved blood supply and better functioning of the organs. All of these properties show that Ginseng's reputation as an overall tonic is more than justified. In Chinese medicine it is often given in compound mixtures that address a particular part or function of the body, e.g. ginseng and ginkgo are said to be an ideal combination for mental stress, memory improvement and to improve concentration.
Ginseng is especially recommended to ally ailments associated with old age, but in this day and age where stress has become a way of life, it would make a good choice for anybody that wants to offset the negative effects of the rat-race before serious long-term consequences have actually started to manifest as chronic conditions. It can be taken on a daily basis and tolerance is generally considered very good. Though there are some cautionary advice against its use for individuals with high blood pressure and during pregnancy.
Here are a couple of recipes for healing foods offered by the Ginseng board of Wisconsin, a great resource for sourcing ginseng producers in the US.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix flour, baking powder, spices and ginseng powder in bowl. Meanwhile, slowly melt chocolate and butter in top of double boiler until smooth. Add melted chocolate to dry ingredients. Add honey, milk and egg whites and stir just enough to blend. Pour into greased muffin tins and bake for 20 - 25 minutes. Cool two minutes before removing from pan.
Combine all ingredients and toss well. Serve with oil and vinegar or your favorite dressing. Flavor with condiments of your choice.
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