As the name implies, ginseng root is the taproot of a native American plant of the same name, ginseng, or Panax quinquefolius. Closely related to Asian ginseng, also known as Panax ginseng, the various preparations of the root have been used for centuries to reduce stress, increase strength and promote relaxation.
From Wild to Rare
American ginseng was once a common plant of the eastern United States, growing in moist, shady forests from Quebec to Alabama and west to the Great Plains states. Gaining prominence in the 1970s as an important herbal supplement, wild ginseng was rapidly over-harvested and has largely disappeared from its native range. It is now listed as a federally endangered or threatened plant in 10 states, and harvesting or collection of the plant is either strictly regulated or prohibited outright.
Many initial attempts to develop ginseng plantations failed due to disease or inadequate conditions. Today, small-scale farms in Marathon County, Wisconsin produce 90 percent of the country's ginseng root, most of which is sold for export to Hong Kong--though most ginseng sold in American health food stores originates in China. A slow-maturing crop, ginseng must be grown in near-complete shade in acidic soils and takes a minimum of five years to reach harvestable size.
Ginseng differs from other commercial crops not only for its long maturation period and cultural requirements, but also in how its seeds must be started. Ginseng in the wild produces seeds inside bright red berries once it has reached maturity, but to start these seeds for commercial cultivation, seeds must be stratified for up to 18 months before they are ready for germination. Stratification consists of several weeks of exposure to cold temperatures, which can be simulated under artificial culture by soaking the seeds in a formaldehyde solution and then treating with a fungicide to prevent infection. Seeds quickly lose viability if allowed to dry out.
Historic Medicinal Uses
American ginseng was used by a wide variety of Native American tribes to aid in hunting, fertility, to treat skin and eye sores and to treat asthma. In China, where the Asian strain of the plant has been grown and harvested for millennia, ginseng was reputed to lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels, improve athletic performance, boost energy and increase relaxation. Root preparations were typically made by drying and then pulverizing it into powder, which was then incorporated into soaps, lotions, salves, ointments or mixed directly into food and drink.
Artificially cultivated and wild-grown ginseng alike command a high price in the market; farmed ginseng goes for between $10 and $25 per dry lb., while wild-grown ranges between $350 and $450 per dry lb., on average. The high prices make the plant more vulnerable to poaching, though only mature, well-formed roots sell for such high prices. Immature roots tend to be brittle and dry, while the best quality mature roots are thick and waxy with close-set concentric rings encircling the root from crown to tip.