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Botanical name: Panax ginseng
Common name: Ginseng root
Literal name translation: man root
Part used in Chinese medicine: root
Major Chinese medicine actions:
Strongly tonifies qi of 5 organs, strengthens Spleen, tonifies Lungs,
generates fluids, alleviates thirst, benefits Heart and calms spirit
There are about six members of the genus “Panax” of the ginseng family. The word “panax” comes from the Greek word “pan” meaning “all”, and the Greek “akos” meaning “cure”, or “cure all”, which exemplifies the high regard for this herb. Panax ginseng includes many different preparations of the root, including white ginseng, red ginseng and Korean ginseng. American ginseng (Xi Yang Shen) is Panax quinquefolium. It is native to North America and has some similar properties to Panax ginseng, though considered better for tonifying the qi and yin. Of the other medicinal panax species, Panax pseudoginseng is called San Qi or Tian Qi and is primarily used to stop bleeding. Panax japonicum is native to Japan and is considered a lesser quality ginseng. What is often known as Siberian Ginseng is Eleutherococcus senticosus and is not in the ginseng family at all.
There is a well known phenomena recognized by plant geographers as “disjunct eastern Asiatic – eastern North American range”. It refers to the geographic similarity between China and the Appalachian-Ozark region of North America, which are exactly opposite each other on the globe. The forests in each place look very similar to each other and there are over 100 well-known plants that only grow in those 2 regions of the world. Ginseng is one of these plants. These regions are thought to be remnants of the same ancient forest that covered much of the northern hemisphere about 70 million years ago.
Ginseng plants have glossy green leaves and grow to about 2 feet tall and wide. They have a thin, single stem that emerges from the top of the root that shrinks each year as the plant grows. This causes wrinkles or rings at the top, or neck, of the root and is the most accurate way to date the age of a ginseng root after harvest. The leaves turn yellow and die each fall leaving a scar. The age of the plant can also be determined by counting these scars.
Growing and Propagation
Ginseng cultivation is complex and difficult, and very costly. The soil must be dug and prepared in such a way to create a deep, very rich, well textured loam, high in humus, and moist but well drained. The plants must grow in full or part shade (75-85% shade is ideal), traditionally provided with laths or screen cloth. In the wild, they often grow under natural tree canopies. The plant us perennial and hardy to USDA zone 6.
Propagation is by seed. Ripe seed must be stratified before planting. This can be done by placing them in sand or other special medium and keeping them in a refrigerator for 4 months. In order to stratify outdoors in the winter,. The seeds are placed in sand in a box with a screen for the top and bottom, and buried 4 inches below the surface of the soil to emulate natural conditions. The seeds are recovered after 18 months, then planted in a specially prepared bed.
Seeds are slow and erratic to germinate and can take from 6-24 months. For the first year or two, the seedlings will have only three leaflets, and flowers are usually pinched off in order to direct more energy to the roots. In most climates seedlings are best grown in a deep pot in a greenhouse or cold frame for the first winter, then can be planted in a permanent location in late summer. Plants are very susceptible to disease when they are young and require careful attention to grow them to their 5 year maturity.
Ginseng seed can be harvested in August of the plant’s third year when the berries turn red. The berries are placed in a cloth bag and mashed two times a day for 4-5 days to release the seed from the pulp. The bags are then soaked in water to help separate them from the residue and the seeds will sink to the bottom.
Harvesting and Preparation
Ginseng roots are harvested in the fall after the fifth year of growth when the active ginsenoside content is at its peak. Both before and after this peak year, the potency of the roots is lower. While digging the ginseng, they should be handled very carefully in order to keep the root intact and undamaged. Wild roots are harvested after the red berries have ripened. This is an ethical practice and done so that the precious seed can be collected or dispersed to propagate more plants.
Freshly dug roots are washed with a strong stream of water from a hose, not scrubbed as it can damage the roots. They are carefully place on screens so that the roots do not touch each other, then dried slowly in a well-ventilated room or a commercial dryer at temperatures below 100 degrees F. The drying process may take several weeks depending on the conditions and weather.
White Ginseng (Bai Ren Shen) is the raw, cultivated ginseng root that has been carefully dried. Good quality ginseng roots are thick and long. They should be unbroken and the cortex a yellowish white color. The smaller branch rootlets are generally removed and sold as a separate, less expensive product.
Red Ginseng (Hong Ren Shen) is pictured above in the second photo. It is prepared by steaming the roots for 3 hours, then drying them over a fire or in the sun. Red ginseng should look reddish brown in color and be slightly translucent. This processed root is warmer in nature than white ginseng.
There are many methods of preparing ginseng roots. Besides the two most common forms described above, also notable is Sugared Ginseng (Tang Ren Shen) which is processed by parboiling the fresh cleaned roots for 3 to 7 minutes, then pricking the roots with needles. The roots are sun-dried then soaked for 10-12 hours in a concentrated solution of sugar, and dried. The entire process is repeated three times.