THE WIDE WORLD OF GINSENGS
The Wide World of Ginsengs
by Meghan Henshaw
When you think of the ginseng plant, do you envision Appalachian forests and highly prized roots? Or perhaps an image of tiny glass vials filled with an extract associated with strength and vitality come to mind? While these details correctly describe ginseng in its many forms, ginseng is actually the common name of numerous, wildly different plants, each hailing from different regions of the world. While the various ginsengs share a handful of general therapeutic properties, they each have notable strengths and differences.
Indian ginseng describes the Ayurvedic favorite ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), which is native to the Middle East, India, and the Mediterranean region. Within the Ayurvedic tradition, it is considered a rasayana, or rejuvenative tonic, which are some of the most highly regarded substances in Ayurveda (Upton, 2000). The British herbalist Sebastian Pole uses Indian ginseng for sleeplessness and low libido (Pole, 2013) and amongst western herbal traditions, it’s taken regularly to improve vitality and aid in recovery after illness (Chevallier, 2016). In southern Africa, ashwagandha has long been used by the Transvaal Sotho peoples to tone the uterus in those prone to miscarriage (Watt & Breyer-Branwijk, 1962), although western practitioners are more cautious about using the root in conjunction with pregnancy (Brinker, 2010).
Withania somnifera, commonly known as ashwagandha or Indian ginseng - From the Collection of the Lloyd Library and Museum
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is endemic to Russia, China, and Korea (Chevallier, 2016) and is highly revered in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for its ability to replenish chi (Hsu et al., 1986). It is known as ren shen and considered an unofficial substitute for American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), yet has its own unique indications (Leon & Yu-Lin, 2017). At one time, P. quinquefolius and P. ginseng were thought to be the same plant until it was later discovered that they were two distinct species (Leon & Yu-Lin, 2017). Despite being native to the eastern woodlands of North America and the Himalayas, American ginseng is also sought after in TCM formulas (United Plant Savers & Rural Action, 2019) and has a special place in the Traditional Chinese Medicine materia medica. It is known as hua-chi-shen and is considered a yin tonic with a bitter, sweet flavor and a mild, cool property (Hsu et al., 1986). It has similar qualities to Asian ginseng and complements native species in some traditional TCM formulas (Wild Ginseng Conservation, 2014).
There are few plants native to the United States with a history as rich as American ginseng. The roots have been traded in Asia since the beginning of the 18th century and continue to be of significant economic value. Asian countries are still large consumers of the root, (American Herbal Products Association, 2006) but more efforts to farm the roots within Asia has decreased trade in recent years as cultivation has taken off in southwest China and some of the northern provinces (Leon & Yu-Lin, 2017). Prior to international interest, American ginseng was used by Indigenous tribes in the US, specifically the eastern woodlands tribes of Iroquois, Creek, and Menominee. They employed the plant for a variety of reasons which ranged from managing fevers, supporting overall health and well- being, as well as addressing dermatological issues (Moerman, 1998). Historically, the root was used amongst settlers for fevers, nausea, vomiting, lung issues, and rheumatism (United Plant Savers, 2021). Eclectic medical doctors in the early 1900s recommended American ginseng in a variety of situations. Dr. John Fyfe used it in cases of nervous debility, ‘gastric derangement of nervous origin’, and loss of appetite (Fyfe, 1903, p. 51). When the classic text American Materia Medica, Therapeutics, and Pharmacognosy was originally published in 1919, Dr. Finley Ellingwood also used it for digestive complaints and to increase capillary function in the brain (Ellingwood, 1983).
Panax quinquefolius, commonly known as American ginseng - From the Collection of the Lloyd Library and Museum
American ginseng’s notoriety has fueled steady demand for its roots, which has resulted in decades of overharvesting throughout its native habitat in Appalachia. As a result, it has been protected since 1975 under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), and, like ivory products and certain species of sandalwood, its export is highly regulated (American Herbal Products Association, 2006). Although difficult to cultivate and slow growing, it can be a lucrative crop with the dried roots sold for up to $1000 per pound (United Plant Savers & Rural Action, 2019).
The future viability of wild American ginseng remains at-risk due to a variety of factors which includes unsustainable harvesting techniques, illegal poaching, and habitat loss. American ginseng’s slow growth, coupled with the fact that it only reproduces by seed, also contributes to sustainability concerns (United Plant Savers & Rural Action, 2019). This plant has become an important indicator species in eastern woodlands, with its health linked to the effects of global and regional environmental change (Wild Ginseng Conservation, 2014).
While it isn’t considered a true ginseng, Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) does have qualities similar to its close relatives, American Ginseng and Asian Ginseng, and all three are found in the same plant family, Araliaceae. It is commonly known as eleuthero and native to many of the same regions as Asian ginseng (Chevallier, 2016). It was one of the first plants identified as an adaptogen by Russian scientists in the 1950s (Easley & Horne, 2016). Adaptogens are a class of herbs which deeply nourish and support the overall health and vitality of the organism (Skenderi, 2003). They are a diverse bunch with a range of actions and applications, yet all are slow-acting and allow the body to better cope with stress (Chown & Walker, 2017). Historically, much curiosity surrounded Siberian ginseng and over three thousand studies have investigated its properties (Easley & Horne, 2016). Despite all of these studies, the specific mechanism that might explain how Siberian ginseng increases stamina and resistance to stress still isn’t fully understood. What is known is that the active compounds, called eleutherosides, along with polysaccharides concentrated in the root, are key contributors to its therapeutic actions (Chevallier, 2016).
In Medicine from the Heart of the Earth, the American herbalist Sharol Tilgner recommends Siberian ginseng for individuals who are unable to adapt to stressful situations (Tilgner, 2009). The plant shines when there is general fatigue, weakness, and decreased physical and mental capacity (Tilgner, 2009). Andrew Chevallier seconds these indications and also recommends that Siberian ginseng be taken when the body needs extra support as it copes with extreme cold or heat, or is pressured to sustain intense physical performance (Chevallier, 2016). Due to these properties, it was even given to people exposed to radiation and toxic chemicals after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 (Chevallier, 2016).
Like Siberian ginseng, American ginseng is also an adaptogen. In the Herbal Vade Mecum, the herbalist Skenderi Gazmend describes using them both when an invigorating herb is needed. He considers them especially useful in cases of fatigue and weakness, or when there is decreased mental and physical performance (Skenderi, 2003). They are both helpful plant allies where there is a combination of low mood and an inability to concentrate (Skenderi, 2003). Despite these similar actions and applications, the plants differ widely in their energetics. In the Modern Herbal Dispensatory, Thomas Easley and Steven Horne consider American ginseng to be cooling and moistening, while classifying Siberian ginseng as balancing and slightly warming (Easley & Horne, 2016). These different energetic qualities explain American ginseng’s role as a mild sedative and Siberian ginseng’s reputation as a mild central nervous system stimulant (Skenderi, 2003).
The different actions of ginsengs can be explained by the wide variety of phytochemicals found in the plants. The active compounds of Siberian ginseng are mostly phenylpropanoids and polysaccharides (Bai, Tohda, Zhu, Hattori, & Komatsu, 2011), while Indian ginseng’s withanolides and alkaloids (Upton, 2000) have been linked to its therapeutic actions. American and Asian ginseng are most similar to each other and almost 50 ginsenosides have been isolated from these two plants (McGuffin, Leung, & Tucker, 2000). Especially high concentrations of ginsenosides can be found in the roots of American ginseng yet many of these same compounds can be found in Asian ginseng in lower amounts (Upton, 2012). While each ginseng has its own unique chemistry and history, each plays a rich role in herbal traditions worldwide.
Meghan Henshaw has spent the past 20 years studying the plethora of ways in which medicinal plants are woven into the fabric of everyday life. This has led her all over the US and abroad to Morocco, England, Mexico and Italy where she has worn many hats as a field researcher, wildcrafter, herbalist and educator. She received her BS in herbal science from Bastyr University and MS in ethnobotany from the University of Kent (UK). One of her passions is sharing practical and interesting herbal information with the public and she works frequently with the botanical collections at the historic Lloyd Library, located in the heart of Cincinnati, Ohio. For more information about her botanical projects please visit ocotilloherbals.com
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