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Botanical name: Eutherococcus sentincosus
Common name: Siberian ginseng, Eleuthero
Literal name translation: spiny five additions
Family: Araliaceae, ivy family
Part used in Chinese medicine: root and caulis
Major Chinese medicine actions:
Tonifies Spleen and Kidneys, nourishes the Heart,
calms the spirit, invigorates the blood
The genus Eleutherococcus is part of the ginseng family and includes about 20 species of shrubby plants native to East Asia, China, Japan, Korea and Russia. The nomenclature of the plant is somewhat confusing and has a convoluted history. In 1856, it was named Hedera senticosa. In 1859, “Eleutherococcus” was recognized as a distinct genus, for which the plant was considered representative. It was re-named Eleutherococcus senticosa. Subsequently, in 1894, the genus Eleutherococcus and the genus Acanthopanax were combined, and since Acanthopanax was an older named genus, all species under “Eleutherococcus” were re-named Acanthopanax. The plant was re-named Acanthopanax senticosa. Then again, in 1924, the Acanthopanax and Eleutherococcus were on more recognized as separate genus groups. At present, most of the world scientists call the plant Eleutherococcus senticosa, though unfortunately, China has retained the name Acanthopanax senticosa.
The common name, “Siberian ginseng” is controversial as well. In China, the term “seng” indicates a medicinal plant with fleshy roots that is used as a tonic. Eleutherococcus does not fix that criteria and actually “ginseng” is considered the only true “seng”. The name Siberian Ginseng was first used when importing the herb to the U.S. in the early 1970’s, and using the name “ginseng” is considered by many to have been a marketing strategy. In 2002, the United States made it illegal to market it in the U.S. with the name “ginseng” as it is considered to exclusively refer to the species Panax ginseng, called Ren Shen. At present, Eleutherococcus senticosa is commonly called “Elethero” or its Chinese name, “Ci Wu Jia”.
In the 1940’s, Russia initiated a search for an inexpensive, effective and abundant source of adaptogenic herbs. An adaptogen is an herb that is safe, having few or no side effects, that improves the function of many physiologic systems when affected adversely by stress. These herbs act as immune system tonics and have generalized, non-specific actions that induce a normalizing effect on body systems in general.
Eleuthro was the primary herb with adaptogenic qualities to gain serious attention in the Russian search. Since that time, over 6,000 patients have been involved in clinical trials measuring the effectiveness of the herb in counteracting different types of physical stress. Results have been generally positive with few side effects, though the high quality product used and researched extensively in Russia is a 33% ethanol extract that is not available in the U.S.
Growing and Propagation
In its native habitat, Eleuthro grows in groups in thickets or in the low undergrowth of mountain forests. Growing 3-15 feet high, it does best in full sun to partial shade and is quite hardy and tolerant of poor soil quality as long as there is good drainage. Small star shaped flowers appear in July followed by blue-black berries. The male flowers are lavender to purple and female flowers are green.
To propagate, seeds can be planted in spring or fall, or cuttings made in August through September. Cuttings should be taken from branches of the previous year’s growth, in 6 to 12 inch sections. Placing them in the soil obliquely, they will root in 2 to 3 weeks and can be planted in a more permanent location the following spring or fall.
Harvesting and Preparation
Roots should be dug in the fall or winter when the plant is dormant. The small lateral rootlets are cut off and roots washed. For medicinal use, the best quality roots are thick and hard, and a cross section of the stems will show a yellowish white surface. The herb has a light fragrance.
The root bark (Wu Jia Pi) is also used in Chinese medicine. The root bark and stem bark have been found to have similar constituents, so at present in China, the stems are more commonly used as it is easier not to dig up the root. Good quality root bark has a thick cortex and no heartwood.