Digging into the Roots of Ginseng: Its History, Popularity and Benefits

Sandra Folzer, Weavers Way Environment Committee

Recently, I took a course on ginseng offered by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. One of PASA’s members, Eric Burkhart, a botanist from Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, led the workshop.

The ginseng plant is best known for its revered medicinal qualities and was first recorded in Chinese medical literature in 196 A.D. The Chinese believed that it is supposed to give renewed energy. Some research claims that it protects brain cells against degeneration, while others claim it is an aphrodisiac. Hard data are difficult to find.

American ginseng was first discovered in North America in 1716 when Joseph-Francois Lafitau, a Jesuit priest, found it along the border of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. The Iroquois, whose society he studied as part of his mission work there, had long been familiar with the herb’s medicinal properties and used it as a common remedy.

Once ginseng became a domesticated crop in the late 1800s, it became wildly popular. John Jacob Astor, one of the first millionaires in the United States, first made his fortune by buying and selling ginseng roots, and Daniel Boone was among the thousands of Appalachian-based seekers of the herb, according to the book “Ginseng Dreams: The Secret World of America’s Most Valuable Plant” by Kristen Johannsen.

In Pennsylvania, about 1,450 pounds of wild ginseng is currently harvested each year, with an average price of over $400 per pound, according to a 2003 article in the Baltimore Sun. It grows in every county in the state, as well as in 19 other states. Marathon County, WI is considered the ginseng capital of the United States, producing 10 percent of the world’s supply.

American ginseng has thus far only been named as an endangered species in Rhode Island and Maine but is considered a vulnerable species in New York and Pennsylvania and a threatened species in Michigan, New Hampshire and Virginia. Poaching of cultivated ginseng is a problem in certain parts of Appalachia, according to an article published earlier this year in National Geographic magazine.

Ginseng is difficult to identify in the wild and seems to hide well. I have tried to find it in the woods and have only occasionally identified it with certainty. There are plants which look similar. It is a light-tan, gnarled root, and after it’s been growing a year, it looks like poison ivy.

According to the Mount Sinai Health System’s website, ginseng is one of the most popular herbs in the United States. It is sometimes referred to as an adaptogen, meaning that it helps the body deal with various kinds of stress.

In addition, according to the website takecareof.com, a 2019 article in Trends in Food Science & Technology reported that the herb was found to be one of the leading nourishing functional foods with immune support potential. The article also suggested that ginseng is an immune therapeutic agent. Meanwhile, according to the Mount Sinai site, Asian ginseng may help boost the immune system, reduce the risk of cancer and improve mental performance and well-being. File away that information when considering how to boost your immunity during this time of COVID.