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Ginseng - Encyclopedia

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What is Ginseng?

The word ginseng is said to mean 'the wonder of the world.' Ginseng is the most famous Chinese herb. It is the most widely recognized plant used in traditional medicine. Various forms of ginseng have been used in medicine for more than 7000 years. Several species grow around the world, and though some are preferred for specific benefits, all are considered to have similar properties as an effective general rejuvenator.

The name panax is derived from the Greek word panacea meaning, "all healing" and the benefits of ginseng are recognized as such. Ginseng is commonly used as an adaptogen, meaning it normalizes physical functioning depending on what the individual needs (for example, it will lower high blood pressure, but raise low blood pressure).


There are a few myths about the historical use of ginseng, and although ginseng definitely has some 'powers', it seems exaggeration was not unusual when recording these stories for the next generations.

The mythical emperor Shen-nung ('the godlike farmer') is known as the first person who has used ginseng. This emperor was blessed with a transparent abdomen through which he could judge the healing properties for himself.

A diet for which ginseng is central was considered to be essential for reaching a high age. The Chinese Li Chung Yun has been eating only raw vegetables and ginseng and reached the respectable age of 256 years (1677-1933).

In Korea, the annual search for the plant included many rituals. The gatherers were supposed to live ascetic. And when the ginseng was finally found, the roots were carefully dug by hand.

Until the 19th century, the Jesuits were the only Europeans in China. In 1713 the French Father Jartoux wrote about a plant that was called 'orhota' by the Tartars. This plant would possess wonderful powers. It happened to be Panax ginseng. This news reached another missionary, Joseph Lafifau. It occurred to him that the forest areas that were described as the habitat of the ginseng, were rather similar to the environment he was working in himself. He decided to look for Canadian ginseng, which he found in the forests near Montreal. The plant was known by the Iroquois Indians as 'garentoquen'. It appeared to be the species of American ginseng.

It appeared that many Indian tribes had known the plant for ages and that it was part of their medicine. The Chippewa tribe called the plant shte-na-bi-o-dzhi-bih, what means man-root. The plant would work life-enhancing and analgesic. Because the root has the shape of a human, they took the part of the root that looked the same as the body part in pain.

From North America ginseng specimens were transmitted to Paris by Sarassin in 1704. Since the early 1700's there has been a period of two ages in which American ginseng was transported to China. At that time only the emperor had the right to collect the roots from the wild.

Now ginseng is a protected herb in China and Russia: exporting ginseng seeds is banned in China, and harvesting wild ginseng is illegal in Russia. Natural white ginseng is often steam- processed to produce "red ginseng" with different, higher medicinal potency.


Ginseng is distinguished as Asiatic or Chinese ginseng. It is a native of Manchuria, Chinese Tartary and other parts of eastern Asia, and is largely cultivated in China, Korea, and Japan, and Russia. The plant now also grows in rich woods throughout eastern and central North America.

It is a smooth perennial herb, with a large, fleshy, very slow-growing root, 2 to 3 inches in length (occasionally twice this size) and from 1/2 to 1 inch in thickness. The colour ranges from a pale yellow to a brownish colour.

It has a mucilaginous sweetness, approaching that of liquorice, accompanied by some degree of bitterness and a slight aromatic warmth, with little or no smell. The stem is simple and erect, about a foot high, bearing three leaves, each divided into five finely-toothed leaflets, and a single, terminal umbel, with a few small, yellowish flowers. The fruit is a cluster of bright red berries. Ginseng starts flowering in the fourth year, and the roots take 4-6 years to reach maturity.

The older the root, the greater the concentration of ginsenosides, the active chemical compounds, thus the more potent the ginseng becomes. Ginseng roots can live longer than hundreds of years.


Ginseng contains vitamins A, B-6 and the mineral zinc, which aids in the production of thymic hormones, necessary for the functioning of the defence system. The main active ingredients of ginseng are the more than 25 saponin triterpenoid glycosides called "ginsenosides". These steroid-like ingredients provide the adaptogenic properties that enable ginseng to balance and counter the effects of stress. The glycosides appear to act on the adrenal glands, helping to prevent adrenal hypertrophy and excess corticosteroid production in response to physical, chemical or biological stress.

Medical use

Next to the use for the extends mentioned above, ginseng is also used to reduce the effects of stress, improve performance, boost energy levels, enhance memory, and stimulate the immune system.

Oriental medicine has deemed ginseng a necessary element in all their best prescriptions, and regards it as prevention and a cure. It is said to remove both mental and bodily fatigue, cure pulmonary complaints, dissolve tumours and reduce the effects of age. It is also used for diabetes, radiation and chemotherapy protection, colds, chest problems, to aid in sleep, and to stimulate the appetite.

Ginseng varieties

There are multiple varieties of ginseng, which are distinguished by their origins. When it comes to medicinal properties there are small differences, which is why every kind has its own speciality.

Chinese ginseng (Panax ginseng) has been listed by some as useful in the treatment of diabetes, anaemia, cancer, depression, insomnia, shock, fatigue, hypertension, effects of radiation, environmental, physical and mental stress, and chronic illness. It has been said to act as a stimulant promote endurance, increase life expectancy, relax the nervous system, improve mental awareness, encourage proper hormonal functions, improve lipid levels, lower cholesterol, improve nerve growth and increase resistance to disease. It is said to act as an antioxidant, autoimmune stimulant, psychotropic and has anti-tumour actions.

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is similar to Chinese ginseng except that it has a milder effect. Mainly it acts as a tonic for the five organs: the liver, heart, lungs, kidney, and spleen.

Research in China has suggested that the Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is especially effective in relieving fatigue. It has a greater stimulating effect than regular ginseng, but it can also calm the patient and reduce anxiety.

Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) belongs to the same species and has the same effects as Chinese ginseng, but because this type of ginseng grows in perfect environmental conditions. Therefore its qualities are much more superior to the Chinese ginseng.

Japanese ginseng (Panax japonicus) is often used by Japanese herbalists in place of Panax ginseng, it contains much fewer ginsenosides than Chinese ginseng, and is called a low-grade ginseng.

Himalayan ginseng (Panax pseudoginseng subspecies Himalaicus). Himalayans used this ginseng variant for people with low appetite and as a digestive aid. Medicinal potency is lower than Panax ginseng.

How to use Ginseng

Ginseng powder

Whole root. Powdered in capsules, as an ingredient in many herbal formulas, and as a tea. The root is often chewed or a decoction may be made. Put 1/2 teaspoon of the powdered root in a cup of water, bring to a boil and simmer gently for 10 hours. Drink 3 times a day. To make tea, boil 3 grams of ginseng powder in water for 5 to 10 minutes. Sift before drinking.


The literature mentions doses between 1 - 6 grams a day. Excessive use can lead to headaches, sleeplessness, tensed muscles and retained fluids. It is recommendable to take a break after using ginseng for 4 weeks in a row. The body will get used to the regular intake; to keep your dosages effective it is necessary to stop using ginseng for a while.

As with most herbal substances, ginseng could react with your medication. Consult your physician when in doubt.


Ginseng is suitable to combine with fo ti tien, to bring mind and body back into balance. For concentration and clearer thinking ginseng can be combined with guarana.


No known side effect of ginseng has been reported.


For successful cultivation of ginseng, it is stated that a loose, rich soil, with a heavy mulch of leaves and about 80 percent shade - generally provided artificially is necessary. It is difficult to cultivate it outside with success; a rich compost is necessary. Most of the species of this genus need greenhouse treatment. Propagation by cuttings of the roots is the most successful method, the cuttings being placed in sand, under a hand glass. Seeds, generally obtained from abroad, are sown in pots in the early spring and require gentle heat. When the plants are a few inches high, they must be transplanted into beds or sheltered borders. They require a good, warm soil, but much shade.


Fresh ginseng and fresh roots can be stored for two months at 0 ºC and the roots will stay fine for twenty days at 25 ºC

Links / Further reading

University of Wisconsins Field Crops Manual: ginseng

The Nature of Ginseng: From Traditional Use to Modern Research

BBC: Ginseng 'helps to ward off colds'


This article is based on the following pages:

Botanical on ginseng

Herbal Information Center on ginseng

Chinese natural herbs' ginseng information

Ginseng: geschiedenis en gebruik

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