Panax quinquefolius, Araliaceae
Common name: American ginseng
By Anna Fialkoff
American ginseng is a long-lived perennial herb that grows on a single stalk. ‘Sang hunters and growers look for the correlation between the number of leaves and maturity of the plant for harvest. When young, the plant bares one or two palmately divided and compound leaves and underground, its root is still scrawny. At three to seven years of age, the plant has acquired up to four leaves and the root has become forked or multi-pronged, often resembling the shape of a person. The Penobscots called it “man root.” The common name, ginseng, comes from the Chinese shen-gen and also means “man-like plant.” Chinese healers say that ginseng is the “essence of the Earth in the form of a man.”
Our native Panax quinquefolius must be discussed in context with its Asian counterpart Panax ginseng. Everything about American ginseng, from its common and Latin names to its medicinal virtues, and the status of its wild populations, are inevitably linked to its Asian friend. Both plants, growing in rich, cool and shaded woods of northern latitutes, are survivors of an ancient forest that covered much of the Northern Hemisphere about 70 million years ago. They were separated by the spreading of the continents, and what remains is called the disjunct eastern Asiatic – eastern North American range. To this day, groups of closely related species are found in mountain ranges of eastern Asia and the Appalachians and Ozarks of North America.
Asian ginseng has been revered as a healing tonic for at least 2,000 yrs. in China. The Latin word panax is derived from the Greek word “panakos”, which means panacea or “cure-all.” Ginseng root, Asian and American, is known as the ultimate adaptogen. “Adaptogen” is a term coined by herbalists to describe plants that provide a non-specific, yet wide array of benefits including normalizing body functions, increasing resistance to different kinds of stress and heightening mental and physical performance.
Some people say P. ginseng and P. quinquefolius can be used interchangeably. Traditional Chinese Medicine has a highly sophisticated pharmacopeia and distinguishes between the American and Asian species in medicinal application. The Chinese find even more subtleties between plants of the same species growing in different regions, and especially between wild and cultivated versions of a species.
Efforts in cultivation are underway with small operations of woods-grown ginseng and larger scale cultivation by growers in Wisconsin, where the plant is grown somewhat successfully in beds under shade cloth. It is difficult to convert people to cultivated ginseng because the Chinese will pay much higher prices for the wild version. Having depleted sources of wild Asian ginseng, Asia is now the largest market for our wild American ginseng product. They buy over 30 tons of wild ginseng from the United States each year. The Chinese place higher value on the five to seven year old plants that have “man-like” roots, but when grown commercially the three to four year old roots are usually harvested for higher turnover. This probably reinforces the belief that cultivated ginseng is not as medicinally “powerful” as the wild kind.
P. quinquefolius was used by Native Americans for all matter of ailments for centuries from Meskwaki love potions to a strengthener of mental prowess for the Menominee. After being discovered in the early 1700s in Canada by a Jesuit missionary, Joseph Francois Lafitau, samples were sent to Chinese merchants and the product began being exported to China. Around the same time, Asian ginseng started becoming rare in the wild so American ginseng quickly took its place in the market. Before World War I, ginseng was one of the major money- making crops in America. Both Colonists and Native Americans dug American ginseng plants in mass quantities and the plant was nearly eliminated over much of their range.
Now, known wild populations of P. quinquefolius are coveted and kept low profile by botanists, biologists, herbalists, harvesters, and conservationists. Protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species since 1975, the Fish and Wildlife Service and individual states have developed programs to regulate but not to stop wild harvest of the root. In the northeast, New York and Vermont have “Good Stewardship Brochures” developed by the American Herbal Products Association, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and United Plant Savers. The brochures highlight ideal times to harvest to ensure wild populations continue to thrive. One recommendation is to harvest the roots only after the bright red and berry-like drupes are ripe, and then replant them immediately.
These two closely-related plants shared a common history in an ancient forest. Their separation by time and distance gave them their own qualities and long histories of traditional use. P. quinquefolius and P. ginseng have wound their stories together once again. American and Asian ginsengs are prime examples of plants that have become rare due to over-harvesting in the wild due to demand from the international market.
Bibliography - for further reading
American Herbal Products Association, United Plant Savers and US Fish and WildlifeService. “Good Stewardship Harvesting of Wild American Ginseng”. Sept. 2006. <http://www.ahpa.org/portals/0/pdfs/ExportRules.pdf>.
Anderson, M. Kat and Peterson J. Scott. “Plant Guide”. USDA, NRS, National Plant Data Center. May 2003.<http://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_paqu.pdf>.
Cech, Richo. Making Plant Medicine. Williams, Oregon: Horizon Herbs, 2000.
Cullina, Bill. Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000.
Foster, Steven. “Steven Foster’s Herbal Information Resources.” Copyright 1999-2009 Steven Foster. <http://www.stevenfoster.com/education/index.html>.
Gleason, Henry A. and Cronquist, Arthur. Manual of Vascular Plants of NortheasternUnited States and Adjacent Canada Second Edition. New York: New York Botanical Garden, 1991.
Moerman, Dan. “Search Panax quinquefolius.” University of Michigan-Dearborn. NativeAmerican Ethnobotany. 14 May. 2003. <http://herb.umd.umich.edu/herb/search.pl?searchstring=Hydrastis+canadensis>
Senghas, Ellen. “An Introduction to Medicinal Plants of New England.” Tufts University of Medicine, 1983.
Smith, Ed. Theraputic Herb Manual, A Guide to the Safe and Effective Use of Liquid Herbal Extracts. Williams, Oregon: Ed Smith, 2009.
United States. United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service. Plants Profile, Panax quinquefolius. 9 Nov. 2010. <http://www.plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=HYCA>.
Weiner, Michael A. Earth Medicine Earth Food. New York: Ballantine Books, 1980.