Ginseng is found in North America and in eastern Asia (mostly northeast China, Korea, Bhutan, eastern Siberia), typically in cooler climates. Panax vietnamensis, discovered in Vietnam, is the southernmost ginseng known. This article focuses on the species of the series Panax, which are the species claimed to be adaptogens, principally Panax ginseng and P. quinquefolius. Ginseng is characterized by the presence of ginsenosides and gintonin.
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is in the same family, but not genus, as true ginseng. Like ginseng, it is considered to be an adaptogenic herb. The active compounds in Siberian ginseng are eleutherosides, not ginsenosides. Instead of a fleshy root, Siberian ginseng has a woody root.
The English word ginseng derives from the Chinese term rénshēn (simplified: 人参; traditional: 人蔘). Rén means "Person" and shēn means "plant root"; this refers to the root's characteristic forked shape, which resembles the legs of a person. The English pronunciation derives from a southern Chinese reading, similar to Cantonese yun sum (Jyutping: jan4sam1) and the Hokkien pronunciation "jîn-sim".
The botanical/genus name Panax means "all-heal" in Greek, sharing the same origin as "panacea" was applied to this genus because Linnaeus was aware of its wide use in Chinese medicine as a muscle relaxant.
Besides P. ginseng, many other plants are also known as or mistaken for the ginseng root. The most commonly known examples are xiyangshen, also known as American ginseng 西洋参 (P. quinquefolius), Japanese ginseng 東洋参 (P. japonicus), crown prince ginseng 太子參 (Pseudostellaria heterophylla), and Siberian ginseng 刺五加 (Eleutherococcus senticosus). Although all have the name ginseng, each plant has distinctively different functions. However, true ginseng plants belong only to the Panax genus.
Control over ginseng fields in China and Korea became an issue in the 16th century. By the 1900s, due to the demand for ginseng having outstripped the available wild supply, Korea began the commercial cultivation of ginseng which continues to this day. In 2010, nearly all of the world's 80,000 tons of ginseng in international commerce was produced in four countries: China, South Korea, Canada, and the United States.
Commercial ginseng is sold in over 35 countries with sales exceeded $2.1 billion, of which half came from South Korea in 2013. China has historically been the largest consumer for ginseng.
The root is most often available in dried form, either whole or sliced. Ginseng leaf, although not as highly prized, is sometimes also used.
Ginseng has been shown to have adverse drug reactions with phenelzine and warfarin; it has been shown to decrease blood alcohol levels. A potential interaction has also been reported with imatinib resulting in hepatotoxicity, and with lamotrigine causing DRESS syndrome.
The common adaptogen ginsengs (P. ginseng and P. quinquefolia) are generally considered to be relatively safe even in large amounts. One of the most common and characteristic symptoms of acute overdose of Panax ginseng is bleeding. Symptoms of mild overdose may include dry mouth and lips, excitation, fidgeting, irritability, tremor, palpitations, blurred vision, headache, insomnia, increased body temperature, increased blood pressure, edema, decreased appetite, dizziness, itching, eczema, early morning diarrhea, bleeding, and fatigue.
Symptoms of gross overdose with Panax ginseng may include nausea, vomiting, irritability, restlessness, urinary and bowel incontinence, fever, increased blood pressure, increased respiration, decreased sensitivity and reaction to light, decreased heart rate, cyanotic (blue) facial complexion, red facial complexion, seizures, convulsions, and delirium.
Patients experiencing any of the above symptoms are advised to discontinue the herbs and seek any necessary symptomatic treatment, as well as medical advice in severe cases.
Asian ginseng (root)
Panax ginseng is available commercially as fresh, red, and white ginsengs; wild ginseng is used where available.
Red ginseng (traditional Chinese: 紅蔘; simplified Chinese: 红参; pinyin: hóng shēn; Hangul: 홍삼; hanja: 紅蔘; RR: hong-sam), P. ginseng, has been peeled, heated through steaming at standard boiling temperatures of 100 °C (212 °F), and then dried or sun-dried. It is frequently marinated in an herbal brew which results in the root becoming extremely brittle.
Fresh ginseng is the raw product. Its use is limited by availability.
White ginseng, native to America, is fresh ginseng which has been dried without being heated. It is peeled and dried to reduce the water content to 12% or less. White ginseng air-dried in the sun may contain less of the therapeutic constituents. It is thought by some that enzymes contained in the root break down these constituents in the process of drying. Drying in the sun bleaches the root to a yellowish-white color.
Wild ginseng grows naturally and is harvested from wherever it is found. It is relatively rare, and even increasingly endangered, due in large part to high demand for the product in recent years, which has led to the wild plants being sought out and harvested faster than new ones can grow (it requires years for a root to reach maturity). Wild ginseng can be either Asian or American, and can be processed to be red ginseng.
Woods-grown American ginseng programs in Vermont, Maine, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, West Virginia and Kentucky, and United Plant Savers have been encouraging the planting of ginseng both to restore natural habitats and to remove pressure from any remaining wild ginseng, and they offer both advice and sources of rootlets. Woods-grown plants have a value comparable to wild-grown ginseng of similar age.
Partially germinated ginseng seeds harvested the previous Fall can be planted from early Spring until late Fall, and will sprout the following Spring. If planted in a wild setting and left to their own devices, they will develop into mature plants which cannot be distinguished from native wild plants. Both Asian and American partially germinated ginseng seeds can be bought from May through December on various eBay sales. Some seed sales come with planting and growing instructions.
P. quinquefolius American ginseng (root)
According to traditional Chinese medicine, American ginseng promotes yin energy, cleans excess yang and calms the body. The reason it has been claimed that American ginseng promotes yin (shadow, cold, negative, female) while Asian ginseng promotes yang (sunshine, hot, positive, male) is that, according to traditional Chinese medicine, things living in cold places or northern side of mountains or southern side of rivers are strong in yang and the converse, so the two are balanced. Chinese/Korean ginseng grows in Manchuria and Korea, the coldest area known to many Koreans in ancient times. Thus, ginseng from there is supposed to be very yang.
Originally, American ginseng was imported into China via subtropical Guangzhou, the seaport next to Hong Kong, so Chinese doctors believed American ginseng must be good for yang, because it came from a hot area. They did not know, however, that American ginseng can only grow in temperate regions. Nonetheless, the root is legitimately classified as more yin because it generates fluids.
The aromatic root resembles a small parsnip that forks as it matures. The plant grows 6″ to 18″ tall, usually bearing three leaves, each with three to five leaflets two to five inches long.
Other plants sometimes called ginseng
- Angelica sinensis (female ginseng, dong quai)
- Codonopsis pilosula (poor man's ginseng)
- Eleutherococcus senticosus (Siberian ginseng)
- Gynostemma pentaphyllum (southern ginseng, jiaogulan)
- Lepidium meyenii (Peruvian ginseng, maca)
- Oplopanax horridus (Alaskan ginseng)
- Panax notoginseng (known as san qi, tian qi or tien chi; ingredient in yunnan bai yao)
- Pfaffia paniculata (Brazilian ginseng, suma)
- Pseudostellaria heterophylla (prince ginseng)
- Schisandra chinensis (five-flavoured berry)
- Withania somnifera (Indian ginseng, ashwagandha)