Ginseng & Changing Times

If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, you must have noticed that I like to look at herbs from a historical perspective … how they were used medicinally, what folklore may be attached to an herb, local customs (and superstitions) and sometimes I even find a tidbit that gives an indication of magical use. Because of this interest I tend to read some rather obscure – and sometimes bizarre – books.

I just finished one such little gem that I downloaded from The Gutenberg Project. (You may also have noticed that I’m rather frugal, so any book I can get for free is a good thing.) Ginseng and Other Medicinal Plants by A. R. Harding (A. R. Harding Publishing Company, Columbus, Ohio 1908) focuses mainly on Ginseng and Goldenseal but also has some information on other ‘root herbs’ and was written for the person who wanted to grow root herbs for profit. (One problem with e-books is there aren’t any illustrations and this one had many I would like to see.)

One of the first sentences that caught my eye, “The amount of root drugs used for medicinal purposes will increase as the medical profession is using of them more and more” almost had me falling out of my chair laughing. How times have changed in 100 years!  Of course, Mr. Harding (who claimed in this book to have a medical practice although he is best known as an outdoorsman & publisher) did not know when he made that statement that penicillin would be discovered in 1928 and change the face of the practice of medicine forever. (He passed in 1930.)

Another tidbit of information that was highly interesting is that at that time, pharmaceutical companies (producing herb-based drugs, not synthetic) were importing Dandelion Root, Burdock Root, Red Clover blossoms and Cornsilk (among others) from Europe!

Anyways, back to Ginseng. The Chinese have used Ginseng for centuries as a tonic. So much so, in fact, that they imported American Ginseng by the ton. This probably contributed to the scarcity of wild Ginseng here – ‘Sang hunters (as they were and are known) over-harvested the native population, especially in the northern Appalachians. Ginseng is a picky plant and it takes a specific environment & patient farmer to cultivate, but cultivated Ginseng is what you get nowadays.

American Ginseng Panax quinquefolium is the most widely-available. Koren Ginseng Panax ginseng is preferred by some but the chemical constituents are nearly identical. It is indeed a tonic, as well as a stimulant and an adaptogen (which allows the body to ‘adapt’ to stress on it, whatever that stress may be).  It is safe for use under most circumstances, however caution should be exercised by those with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiac problems and those on anticoagulants or antidepressants. It’s also recommended that you don’t take Ginseng continuously but perhaps two months on and a month off.  I understand Chinese doctors generally only prescribe it for patients over 60, and it is only to be taken in the winter months.

The book did have one interesting recipe which I will share here. It is for “Ginseng Tonic”:

3 ounces     powdered Ginseng

1 ounce       milk sugar (this is now marketed as lactose milk sugar and you can buy it in bulk)

60 drops    Wintergreen essential oil.

Mix ingredients together well, making sure you disperse the oil throughout the powder. Steep 1 teaspoon of the mixture in 1 cup hot water for 10 minutes. You can filter it, sweeten with milk & sugar and drink it as a ‘tea’, as well. According to the book, “…good effect on the stomach, brain and nervous system”.

And one last morsel from the book: at least in the early 1900’s, the Chinese were always on the lookout for a Ginseng root that had a human appearance.  These were thought to be the most powerful and were carried in the pocket as a good luck charm (but eventually ground down for their tonic – no need to waste it). Although I have no indications of magical uses for Ginseng, this, along with its tonic and adaptogenic properties makes me think it would be good in general health spells.