When I was a young boy, my grandmother helped me to distinguish just what a hard life was. She told me about “the old days”, when she was a twelve year old girl. Now when my grandmother was twelve, it was the year 1930. The Great Depression had just begun, and it was “hard times” for almost everyone. Now magnify the difficulty of those times with who my grandmother was: a poor West Virginia mountain girl. When she was twelve she ran away from home to be on her own, and of course, times were harder still.
She washed dishes in the kitchen of a restaurant to pay for her bed at night. Of course she still had food to buy, so she went out “sangin” during the day as it was called in West Virginia. Sangin’ was the slang way of saying that one was going out to pick ginseng in the mountains. It wasn’t easy work back then, when a person didn’t have a four wheeler to get up and down the mountain slopes and a basket to toss the ginseng in: so people there knew they would have to spend all day out in the mountain forests to find ginseng, or they and their family would be going hungry.
Ginseng has been in the circulation of healing herbs for thousands of years in Asia. There is an old Chinese tale of the powers of “schinseng”, the Chinese word for ginseng. Schinseng in Chinese literally means “essence of the earth in the form of man” due to the shape of the root, which looks like the shape of a man. Ginseng in China was attributed different healing properties: “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 A.
D. 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. ” (WV. D. N. R. p 1) American ginseng is of the same genus, but a different species, Panax quinquefolius.
Still being Panax, American ginseng has almost all the same medicinal properties of Asian ginseng, which helped to create a market for it once it was discovered in America. American ginseng is a geophytic herbaceous perennial capable of living at least sixty years. Ginseng emerges in mid spring when the forest canopy has developed adequate leaf cover. Ginseng does not reproduce by rhizome as each genet produces a determinate aerial stem. American ginseng has a leaf pattern of one to four pinnately compound leaves composed of three to five leaflets.
One interesting characteristic of American ginseng is its dormant tendencies: “Ginseng seeds exhibit deep simple morphophysiological dormancy (Baskin & Baskin, 1998) typically germinating 18-20 months after the berry develops. (Conservation Biology p. 721) American ginseng is used today for many herbal remedies including fatigue, hypertension, and adaptogenic effects such as its ability to help ease physical stress. Ginseng contains many pharmacologically active constituents of ginsengs and gensenosides. The active constituents are mainly classified as protopanaxadiol and protopanaxatrial groups.
Research has been increasingly conducted to test ginsengs possible cancer fighting abilities. With the prevalence of colorectal cancer as one of the leading causes of death by a cancer in the United States, most of the research concerning ginsengs cancer destroying power has been focused around the colon and prostate: “Regarding its anti-cancer effects, a case control study on over 1,000 subjects in Korea showed that Chinese or Korean ginseng intakers had a decreased risk for many different cancers compared with non-intakers (Yun and Choi, 1995, Yun and Choi, 1998).
It also suggested that ginseng has a non-organ specific preventative effect against cancer (Yun, 2003)” (Tang Center p. 2) Some research pertaining to the efficacy of ginseng as a cancer fighting drug also included the testing of the pharmacological properties of ginseng when treated to varying degrees of temperature. The ginseng can either be air dried to white ginseng, or it can be steamed at approximately 100 degrees Celsius to red ginseng. Compared with white Asian ginseng, red ginseng has stronger anti-cancer activities due to relatively higher content of Rg3:
“It seems likely that the steaming process or heat-treatment of ginseng is a good approach to transform inactive ginsenosides to active anti-cancer compounds such as Rg3, Rh2 and protopanaxadiol. ” (Tang Center p. 6) Ginsengs distribution in the United States is kind of unclear, due to attempts to introduce the plant as a crop. But the Plants Database website has all the states from Oklahoma east and north all the way to Maine excluding North Dakota, Texas, and Florida. The distribution also includes Eastern Canada. In these states look for ginseng in heavily wooded areas with rich but dry soil, and especially on steep slopes descending into draws.
In China, ginseng has been a popular herbal remedy for thousands of years. In America, it wasn’t until a request from one Jesuit priest to another was ginseng discovered in America by the new settling communities. Father Lafitau received some dried Asian ginseng from another Jesuit priest, Father Jartoux. Father Jartoux requested of Father Lafitau that he see whether or not ginseng grew in America. In the year 1714 Father Latifau discovered the plant and sent several pounds of American ginseng to China where it was warmly welcomed and well paid for.
American ginseng was bringing the supplier five dollars a pound, a great deal of money in those days. This new market emerged and shed a great deal of light on the medicinal properties of the plant, and probably brought about the discovery of other useful plants. With an immediate upsurge of harvesting, it wasn’t long before the plant had been overharvested. By the nineteenth century the plant was already more rare to find. The dangerous population decline would eventually lead to laws being passed to protect ginseng. Central to this legal development was the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
One of these laws was very important for the plants ability to reproduce and also to allow the plant to medicinally mature. As I stated earlier, ginseng tends to lay dormant fort one and a half to two years, so it is important that the plant have the time to both mature and reproduce. In some states it is only “suggested” that when harvesting ginseng the harvester should plant the seeds from the berries, in other states it is mandated by law. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service also directed the law that requires a root be five years old before it may be harvested and sold, to ensure the plant had time to propagate.
With a requirement like that it may occur to many people as a prohibition to go sangin’, but there is an easy way to determine the age of the root: “Counting the leaf scars on the rhizome at the base of the stem allows one to easily detect the age of a ginseng plant. The stem arises from a bud that grows at the top of the root. When the stem dies back in the fall it leaves behind a leaf scar. A ginseng root actually shrinks as the bud develops. This consequent shrinking and growing produces wrinkles on the neck of the root. These wrinkles or leaf scars may be counted to estimate a plant’s age.
” (WV. D. N. R. p. 3) The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been detrimental to the sustainability and survivability of wild American ginseng. The Department of Natural Resources has also been very important to ginseng. Without these two departments of the United States government, it is likely that ginseng would not be here today when it can pay a harvester around 400 dollars a pound. When the root ages, it takes on the shape of a man, and thanks this characteristic with applied legend, ginseng can bring in far more than 400 dollars a pound.
This makes the protection of the plant even more difficult and important. If the developments in cancer research turn up the greatest cancer fighting ability herbally with ginseng, it will become the most important herb on the market, and would become next to impossible to stop poaching. Using West Virginia as an example, the ginseng harvesting season begins on August 15th, and continues until November 15th of each calendar year. Any person caught harvesting green berries instead of red will be prosecuted because green berries almost never germinate, and so will anyone who harvests outside of the season.
Ginsengs healing and preventative power has been used for thousands of years in China, but only since the 1960’s has it been sought regularly in the United States: “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. ” (WV. D. N. R. p. 1).
It is clear that ginseng does indeed harbor some useful medicinal properties, and that there is a possibility that ginseng may be able to fight cancer with further research. The plant was discovered by a holy man, and since has been an important economic stimulant. The plant still grows wild today in the eastern half of the United States, and is sternly protected by both the Department of Natural Resources and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. With those departments protection, ginseng has the potential to be around in the wild of America long enough for my grandchildren to try their hands at sangin’ like their great great grandma.
Works Cited http://www. csiginseng. com/history. htm http://www. dnr. gov/wildlife/magazine/archive/02summer/the history the mystery of ginseng. shtm Wang Chong-Zhi, and Yuan Chun-Su. Potential Role of Ginseng in the Treatment of Colorectal Cancer. Chicago: Tang Center, 2008. McGraw, James B. , et al. Berry Ripening and Harvest Season in Wild American Ginseng. Northeastern Naturalist, 2005. Farrington, Susan J. , et al. Interactive Effects of Harvest and Deer Herbivory on the Population Dynamics of American Ginseng. Conservation Biology, 2008.