Nobody covers natural history better than National Geographic. This month their feature on ginseng in Appalachia covers some history and certainly the challenges of growing and protecting this precious and valuable root. Beyond the guns and theft though, there is culture and history, economics and environment. Here are 20 things I’ve learned about ginseng.
1. Ginseng grows wild, in North American forests. Locals call it “sang,” but its scientific name is Panax quinquefolius.
2. Panax means “all-healing” in Greek. Ginseng is a root which many believe is a cure-all.
3. A Jesuit priest first discovered ginseng in the New World over 300 years ago. George Washington wrote about ginseng. Daniel Boone was a ginseng trader, and John Jacob Astor made a fortune exporting the root.
4. The first U.S ship to trade with China sailed from New York Harbor in 1784. The ship was called Empress of China, and her cargo… ginseng.
5. Asian cultures revere ginseng for its medicinal values, and refer to the plant as “the king of herbs.”
6. Wild ginseng roots live in the understory of northeast-facing forests. Scientists believe the roots can live 50 years, but folklore suggests that the roots can live much longer. Many diggers believe that ginseng can lay dormant, underground, for years. But, scientists insist that this is impossible, as ginseng roots require leaves, sun, and photosynthesis.
7. When “awake,” the plant produces red berries in autumn. The ripe berries fall to the ground and some become new plants if deer, birds or rodents do not eat them.
8. It’s not easy to spot ginseng on the forest floor without training. Hunting ginseng is easier later in the fall when leaves begin to yellow and stand out against neighboring plants.
9. Ginseng hunting as a hobby, lifestyle, or moneymaking venture is passed on in certain Appalachian families.
10. Canadians are no longer allowed to dig ginseng if they find it growing wild. In the U.S, anyone can, but a license is required to sell it.
11. Wild ginseng will only grow in specific temperate forests. There must be enough rain, with a steep enough hillside to ensure that water does not stagnate. The plant does not appreciate direct sunlight and prefers the decaying leaf matter of certain hardwood trees such as poplar and maple. There are very few such forests left on the planet.
12. In 1973 the United Nations recognized the threats facing wild ginseng and included the root in the C.I.T.E.S Treaty (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.) This is the same treaty that protects the Rhinoceros.
13. Most of the remaining wild ginseng grows in the mountains of rural Appalachia, where thieves, urban growth, climate change, and Asian demand are threatening historically abundant root populations. But the root can be cultivated.
14. There is strong demand in China for both wild and cultivated American ginseng. Ninety-eight percent of U.S ginseng farming takes place in Marathon County, Wisconsin.
15. Ginseng is difficult to grow. A cultivated crop should never be planted on the same location twice because roots exhaust the soil’s micronutrients. A variety of chemicals are also required to ensure healthy farm-grown ginseng.
16. Ginsenoside is the active compound found almost exclusively in ginseng. Scientists contend that wild ginseng has many times more ginsenoside than the farmed product. Ginsenosides are believed to relieve inflammation, improve circulation, and reduce anxiety and fatigue. People also believe that ginsenosides act as an aphrodisiac.
17. Researchers lament the fact that long-term studies of forest-grown ginseng are virtually impossible. The valuable roots are inevitably stolen by unscrupulous thieves.
18. Yet scientists are still studying the plant. Researchers at the Medical School of Southern Illinois University believe that ginseng might stop the growth of breast cancer cells.
19. Ginseng is appreciated for its spiritual value as well. The Chinese believe that a wild ginseng root shaped like a human being brings good luck. Some good luck is needed if the species is to survive.
20. Wild American Ginseng is considered an “indicator species.” If Ginseng is thriving, the surrounding forests are thriving as well. Unfortunately, wild ginseng is threatened, and so is the health of North American forests.
See the story from Nat Geo https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/01/ginseng-root-appalachia/#close
For more on the science and nature and art in my life: https://www.georgelindemann.com/blog/