Common Name: Ginseng, American Ginseng, Asian Ginseng
Scientific Name: Panax species
Family: Araliaceae (the Ivy family)
There are 11 species of ginseng found in eastern Asia and eastern North America. While all the species contain medicinal compounds (specifically ginsenosides), only Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) are grown in significant quantity. The majority of this article will cover these two species. For completeness sake, here are all the species of Ginseng:
- Notoginseng or “Three-Seven Root” (Panax notoginseng) – grows naturally in China and Japan
- Feather-Leaf Bamboo Ginseng or Pearl Ginseng (Panax bipinnatifidus) – China, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Myanmar
- Ginseng or Asian Ginseng or Chinese Ginseng or Korean Ginseng (Panax ginseng) – China, Korea, Russia; Primary medicinal Ginseng
- Japanese Ginseng (Panax japonicus) – Japan
- American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) – eastern North America; Primary medicinal Ginseng
- Vietnamese Ginseng (Panax vietnamensis) – Vietnam
- Wang’s Sanqi (Panax wangianus) – China
- No English common name (Panax zingiberensis) – China
- Pseudoginseng or Nepal Ginseng or Himalayan Ginseng (Panax pseudoginseng) – eastern Asia, China, Burma
- No English common name (Panax stipuleanatus) – North Vietnam
- Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius) – Northeastern and Appalachian North America
This low-growing, woodland plant is one of the most expensive herbs in the world with prices of more than $50 USD per ounce… sometimes quite a bit more! Ginseng is a great medicinal crop for moist, shady areas, but it is not as simple as planting a few seeds and planning an early retirement. It can be a little picky and takes a number of years before it reaches harvest size. Ginseng has an almost mystical reputation around the world, and much about it has been overblown, but there is pretty good evidence that this root is an effective medicinal plant. I’ll try to present the history and facts, as best I can, about this small plant with a big reputation.
History & Trivia:
- Asian Ginseng was likely discovered in the Manchurian Mountains (Northern China) over 5,000 years ago.
- Most researchers believe that Ginseng was first used as a food.
- Many ancient health systems developed the belief that the shape of the plant identifies which bodily ailment it can heal. The Ginseng root resembles a miniature human body, so Ginseng was revered as a whole-body cure-all.
- Ginseng has traditionally been used for general well-being, improving understanding, as an aphrodisiac, and as a medicine to prolong life.
- The scientific name of the genus, Panax, comes from the Greek meaning “all-heal” (the word panacea has the same origination).
- The name “ginseng” is derived from the Chinese word “rénshēn” (rén = person; shēn = plant root) due to the root resembling human legs, the torso, and sometimes even a full body.
- The first mention of Asian Ginseng as a medicine was in a book from the Chien Han Era (33-48 B.C.) in China, although the oral tradition probably originated thousands of years earlier.
- The most commonly cited first reference is to the Shennong Ben Cao Jinge (The Herbal Classic of Shennong). This compilation of Chinese medicinals dates between 100-200 AD.
- After the publication of Shennong Ben Cao Jinge, the popularity of (and desire for) Ginseng soared. It is reported that locals, regional leaders, and the government all fought for control of the native Ginseng territory.
- Sometime between 500-600 AD, the wild population of Ginseng became increasingly scarce due to overharvesting. Since that time, wild Asian Ginseng has remained very rare and very expensive.
- Similarly, and maybe due to common ancenstry, Native American Indians called Ginseng “little man” and used it for similar reasons as the Chinese, and it was considered a “sacred” herb, although it was not nearly as revered as Asian Ginseng in China.
- A Jesuit priest, Father Jartoux, was living in China in the early 1700’s. He sent a sample of dried Asian Ginseng root to his colleague, Father Lafitau, in Canada. Father Jaroux explained the medicinal qualities and uses to Father Lafitau, and he asked the Canadian priest if this plant was growing in North America. After three months of searching, Father Lafitau found wild American Ginseng growing outside of Montreal. In 1716, a few pounds of American Ginseng was sent to China, and it sold for $5 a pound. This started an American Ginseng exportation boom. (here is a letter from Father Jartoux discussing Ginseng).
- There are reports of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett digging and selling large amounts of American Ginseng.
- Wild Ginseng roots can sell from $300-$600 (USD) per pound (o.45 kg), sometimes over $1000 (USD) per pound (o.45 kg).
- The older the root, the slower growing the root, the more gnarled the root, the more twisted the root, the darker the root… all these make the root more desirable, and therefore, more valued.
- When Ginseng is cultivated on a commercial scale, modern growers usually want to maximize yields. This Ginseng is grown in fields under shade cloth with irrigation systems. The growers use fungicides and fertilizers, and this speeds the root growth which results in larger and smoother roots (they look more like a carrot). These roots sell for as little as $10 (USD) a pound (0.45 kg).
- “Forest Cultivated” Ginseng is grown in prepared beds under a forest canopy. This results in faster growth, and less valuable roots, but these roots are more desireable than commercial Ginseng.
- “Wild Simulated” Ginseng is grown in the forest soil itself. Basically, seeds are planted in the ground and are left to grow at their own pace. These roots can be identical and indistinguishable from “Wild Ginseng”. There is less yield and more risk of crop failure with this method, but it requires the least cost and work.
- Wild Ginseng can be legally harvested in 19 U.S. States, typically from 1 Septemer to 1 December. The season overlaps the time the Ginseng berries are ripe, and the law requires the harvesters only harvest mature plants with ripe berries, and the harvesters need to replant the seeds in the “approximate location where the harvester obtained the root”.
- Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is related, but not closely, to true ginseng. There are many other plants called Ginseng, but only the above listed plants are true Ginseng.
- Ginseng Poachers, aka thieves, will harvest roots before the legal season or will trespass onto land to steal wild or cultivated roots. Poachers are fined hundreds of dollars and are charged with misdemeanors. Repeat poachers can spend many months in prison. Many of these poachers trade the roots for drugs. Deales can face federal felony charges.
- Ginseng Catch-22: Ginseng can reproduce both from seed or from the rhizome (underground stem). If a Ginseng plant is propagated from the rhizome, all the subsequent daughter plants are technically clones. By propagating Ginseng with this method, we are assured of a plant that already proved it can grow well in our forest’s unique conditions. Of course, being smart Permaculturists, we don’t want all of our plants to be clones of just a single mother plant due to our desire for genetic diversity; however, there is a huge benefit in propagating successful genetics adapted to our local conditions. Unfortunately, mainly due to overharvesting, there is a requirement that all Ginseng roots are at least 5 years of age. The only way to verify age is to count the scars on the rhizome… the exact rhizome that we would use to propagate clones. Older harvesters would replant the rhizome at the time of harvest, but if we want to sell our roots, this is not possible anymore. If we want to be be very forward thinking, we would grow our Ginseng for at least 5 years, and then replant the rhizome from the most healthy plants.
- Cultivators will plant from 0ne-half pound to 25 pounds of seed per acre of land. Yes, this is a huge range!
- Drying will reduce the weight of the harvest by about two-thirds.
- It will take roughly 250-350 mature Ginseng plants to produce one pound of dried roots for sale.
USING THIS PLANT
- Medicinal Herb (see below).
- The root of ginseng is the primary medicinal portion of the plant.
- The leaf of ginseng can be used as well, but is not considered a primary medicinal.
- Dried ginseng root is the most commonly available form used as a medicinal.
- Ginseng is considered an adaptogen. This is a term used to describe a substance that “adapts” to the specific needs of the body. They are used to promote homeostasis – stabelizing or settling the holistic functions of the body. This is a common concept in herbal medicine, and it is often over-used to make over-blown health claims.
- Asian Ginseng is considered more potent. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it is considered “yang” or “warming”.
- American Ginseng is considered “yin” in TCM or more “cooling”.
- The active ingredient, at least the one modern science understands to be the primary active ingredient, are a variety of compounds known as ginsenosides or panaxosides.
- Most of the modern, scientific research has focused on these ginsenosides. This has positives and negatives as to the information we have on the medicinal value of Ginseng.
- There have been a large number of in vitro (in glass – i.e. in a petri dish) studies on Ginseng that shows all kinds of things. This is NOT the same as in vivo (in life – i.e. with real people) studies.
- In vivo studies have shown the following (note that most of these studies were done using ginsenosides, the compound found in both Asian and American Ginseng):
- Ginseng increased reaction time, abstract thinking, attention, memory, social function, mental health
- Ginseng enhanced the effectiveness of the flu vaccine.
- Ginseng appears to boost the immune system (enhanced chemotaxis, phagocytosis, increased total lymphocyte count, increased numbers of T helper cells).
- American Ginseng with antibiotics works faster than antibiotics alone to clear bacterial bronchitis.
- American Ginseng improves fasting blood glucose levels in patients with non-insulin-dependent diabetes.
- Asian Ginseng improves erectile dysfunction, sexual desire, and sexual satisfaction in patients with erectile dysfunction.
- Ginseng appears to lower cancer risk in people 40 years old or older.
- Ginseng has been shown to be both effective and ineffective for many different medical issues depending on the study that was performed. There are a lot of reasons for this lack of clarity, but researchers are continuing to perform research on Ginseng.
- Ginseng Considerations:
- Ginseng is considered to be well-tolerated with very little risk for side effect.
- Ginseng may interact with warfarin (Coumadin).
- Ginseng should be avoided in people with high blood pressure, asthma, or bleeding problems.
- Ginseng should be used with caution in people with diabetes taking hypoglycemic medicine or in people prone to low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), because it can cause the blood sugar to drop too low.
- Ginseng may cause insomnia in some people.
- Most sources recommend avoiding Ginseng in children, pregnant women, and lactating women, although there are few good studies looking at Ginseng in these groups.
- Most sources recommend avoiding Ginseng in people with hormone-sensitive cancers because the ginsenosides may act like estrogen and make the cancer more active.
- Most sources recommend avoiding Ginseng in people with auto-immune disease (like Lupus, Multiple Sclerosos, Rheumatoid Arthritis, etc.)
- Dosing Ginseng:
- Ginseng is often taken in bursts… it is taken daily for a few weeks to a few months and then not taken for a few weeks or months. This “holiday” seems to allow Ginseng to work more effectively. It’s almost as if the body stops responding to Ginseng if it is taken for too long.
- The most common recommendation is to take Ginseng daily for 2-3 weeks, then take a break of 1-2 weeks, then repeat.
- The oral dose of prepared Ginseng pills is 200 mg daily to 900 mg three times a day. There is no standardized dosing established.
- The “typical” dose of dried, raw Ginseng ranges from 1-8 grams daily for prevention and 15-20 grams daily for acute medical problems.
- If using for premature ejaculation, the Ginseng cream is applied to the glans penis one hour before intercouse and then washed off before intercourse.
- Using Ginseng:
- Dried, whole Ginseng root is very hard (but it is also brittle, so handle with care), so it is usually simmered in water to extract the beneficial compounds.
- There are many recipes online for using dried Ginseng, but here is a common method: Take 2-3 grams of chopped, dried Ginseng root or 1 teaspoon of Ginseng powder. Put the Ginseng into a heat-tolerant cup. Add any additional ingredients as desired (i.e. any other tea or tea-like ingredients). Pour almost (but not quite) boiling water to the cup and let it steep for at least 5 minutes. The longer you let it steep, the stronger the flavor (and possibly more ginsenosides are extracted). Add sweeteners if desired. Enjoy!
- Ginseng root that has been steeped is edible, and some people will eat it after the tea.
Yield: Variable. This is really based on the growing conditions.
Harvesting: In the U.S., wild roots are harvested from plants that are 5 years old or older (Illinois requires the plants to be at least 10 years of age!). They are harvested when the berries are ripe; this is so the berries can be picked and planted “in the general area” where the root was harvested. Try to time harvest after a rain when the soil is loose. Dig carefully – don’t damage the root! Use a pitchfork, narrow spade, or even a long screwdrive to dig under the plant. Gently loosen the plant from the soil. The roots can be briefly soaked or swished around in a bucket of water or briefly rinsed with low-pressure water, but do not wash well or scrub the roots. The dirt on roots is used to age the plant; clean it all off, and you lose your proof of age (well, it makes it a lot harder).
Storage: Ginseng is typically dried before use or sale. This is accomplised by placing the roots in the shade to drain after washing. Then the roots are placed on a screen or drying tray in a location out of direct sun with a temperature of at least 70 degrees F (21 C) and less than 100 degrees F (37 C). Do not let the roots touch during the drying time which can take up to 6 weeks if the roots are large. Drying will reduce the weight of the harvest by about two-thirds. Store dried roots in a paper bag.
DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT
- Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng): Zone 5-9
- American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius): Zone 3-7 (in some conditions to Zone 8)
AHS Heat Zone: American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius): Zone 7-3 (also, in some conditions to Zone 8)
Chill Requirement: Cold exposure is required to stilumate the root to stimulate dormancy. There is no definitive
Plant Type: Small Herbaceous Plant
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Underground Layer, Herbaceous Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: As noted above, there are 11 species of true Ginseng. There does not appear to be any improved varieties; however, the Ginseng that has been cultivated for many generations seem to be less hardy than the plants propagated from truly wild Ginseng. It appears that seed from Ginseng grown in northern climates produce larger roots, but I can find no specific, reliable evidence for this claim.
Pollination: Self-fertile, but also reproduces through outcrossing (with pollen from another plant) via syrphid flies and halictid bees (both are general pollinators).
Flowering: Midsummer (June-July)
Life Span: There are few references on the life span of Ginseng. Plants are not considered mature until they are at least 5 years old (some places 10+ years). There are reports of roots being over 90 years old, although most plants are harvested at a fraction of this age.
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT
- Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng): 6-30 inches (15-76 cm) tall and 8-28 inches (20-71 cm) wide
- American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius): 4-24 inches (10-60 cm) tall and 8-20 inches (20-50 cm) wide
Roots: Small Fleshy Root, although very old plants have been reported to have roots longer than a person’s arm
Growth Rate: Slow
GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT
Shade: Avoid shade of more than 90% as the Ginseng will grow much, much slower.
Moisture: Moist soils. Cannot tolerate very wet soils (rot will set in) or soils that dry out.
pH: Spots where wild American Ginseng grows can range from 4.5-5.5
Special Considerations for Growing:
Good locations for wild simulated Ginseng has the following characteristics:
– Dappled shade or shady edge of forested area.
– High organic matter and calcium levels
– North or east facing slope
– Choose an area with low deer presence as deer like to browse 1-year-old plants
– Overstory trees of Sugar Maple, Tulip Poplar, Black Walnut, Beech, Birch, and Sassafras are good indicators that the conditions are good for Ginseng.
– Already has existing plants that share similar requirements, such as:
- Trillium (Trillium spp.)
- Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
- Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides)
- Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa)
- Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum )
- Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa)
- Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)
- Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum)
- Pea Vines
- Wild Ginger (Asarum spp.)
- Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis)
- Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedioideae spp.)
- Mayapple (Podophyllum spp.)
- Baneberry (Actaea spp.)
- Spicebush (Lindera spp.)
- Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)
- Wandplant (Galax urceolata)
Propagation by seed is the most common method by far. The seed requires cold stratification to germinate. Germination rates in the wild can be very low. Germination rates when planted intentionally can still be low. The plant can also be divided in the Spring, but this is rarely done as it destroys “proof of age”.
Maintenance: Minimal, especially if growing wild-simulated Ginseng. Please see downloads section below for specific details. Planting and harvesting are the two main time-consuming activities.
- There are only a few diseases and wild pests that affect Ginseng. Diseases can largely be avoided (not entirely) with good site selection and avoiding too high planting densities. Rodents can steal planted seeds in the Winter if not buried. Deer can browse young plants and kill them.
- Poaching (aka Theft) can be a legitimate problem with Ginseng growers, but it is often overblown. There are a number of methods to deal with this. One school of thought is to be very open about the fact you are growing Ginseng. Have lots of signs and fences and dogs and cameras – thieves won’t risk being caught in a place that is so public. The other school of thought is to be very secretive – thieves can’t steal what they don’t know exists.
- This is a slow-growing, “non-invasive” plant, so there are really no concerns about this plant. The bigger problem is overharvesting wild populations and the impact of monocropping Ginseng in commercial agricultural endeavors.
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