The media trope of an aged character with their nightstand chock-full of pill bottles may be an unfair cliché, but observing family and friends in their 70’s and 80’s, I’d say it has at least some validity. I’m sure anyone who take numerous meds would like a single fix-all product, a universal remedy. For over a thousand years, an assortment of aches and ailments have been treated by such a panacea, the root of a medicinal plant we know as ginseng. This term is derived from Chinese words for man-root, a reference to its typically forked shape, though Western taxonomists dubbed it Panax, “cures all.”
The genus Panax comprises about 17 species (there’s some dispute), nearly all of which are found in the northern hemisphere. While Korean ginseng is often stocked in health-food stores, our American ginseng is equally good. As for its properties, claims run the gamut. Maladies which could be managed through ginseng include cancer, diabetes, hepatitis, chronic fatigue, dementia, heart disease, arthritis, and immune deficiency. Controlled studies prove ginseng enhances cognition, reduces inflammation, improves stamina, and lessens the severity of the flu. Evidence hints at other possible benefits such as erectile function, but researchers need to apply more rigor to say for sure. Scientific rigor, I mean.
There’s plenty of quackery on the subject, so one should stick to evidence-based sources. Current, reliable info on ginseng can be found at the National Institutes of Health’s Library of Medicine website: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/?term=ginseng+health+benefits. Nearly all the above issues pertain to older folk, so I find it cool that the human-shaped ginseng root gets stronger as it ages. It lives a freakishly long life, perhaps eighty or more years, becoming wizened with time much like a person would, yet more potent until about fifty. Ginseng can’t lie about its age because every year it adds a tiny scar to its root crown, forming a delicate neck which reveals when it was born.
Mind you, elderly roots are rare, and because they’re by definition wild, are protected by law. In most US states, taking wild ginseng is prohibited, but New York has a brief ginseng harvest season. It coincides with hunting season, which I suppose makes it livelier for ginseng-seekers. In Canada it’s illegal to take, sell, buy, or even possess a wild root. Maximum fines range from $150,000 for individuals to $300,000 for businesses (though fines to-date have not been over $30,000). Even so, ginseng poachers do their loathsome best to snuff out the few remaining wild populations.
Ginseng isn’t all peaches and cream, though. There is a potential for severe interactions with certain cancer drugs, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and heart medications. Before taking any supplement, check with your health-care provider. Another risk is quality – tests found some “ginseng” preparations had little or no ginseng, and/or unsafe levels of toxins. Dried roots are more expensive than capsules, but at least you can be sure of getting the real deal. And field-grown ginseng, which matures in 2-3 years, is subject to fungicides, and often molluscicides and fertilizers as well.
Happily, there’s a middle ground between stealing wild ginseng and buying commercial stuff off the shelf. “Wild simulated” is a category in which responsible landowners plant scattered pockets of ginseng in forest environments that favor its growth to yield roots that approach wild-grown in potency. Ginseng is fussy, preferring sites with 70% to 80% shade and rich, cool, well-drained soils on north-facing slopes. It’s even picky about its neighbors, and grows best under hard maple, basswood and/or tulip-poplar trees, and in the company of plants like maidenhair fern, bloodroot and blue cohosh. With the wild-simulated method, roots take 10-15 years to mature. However, they command the highest prices.
“Forest grown” ginseng is also grown by small-scale producers who have the right kind of forest conditions. Ginseng is planted in rows in raised beds that are prepared in the woods. These are managed much like one would a home garden – weeded, watered, and fertilized as necessary. Forest-grown roots are ready in 6-10 years. They’re worth more than field-farmed ginseng, but less than wild simulated. In New York State, commercial cultivation began around 1885, and by 1910 there were 5,000 ginseng farms in the state. Today the number is a fraction of that. In Canada, where ginseng was first discovered (by Europeans at least), it was the opposite, with few producers until about 1980.
Today, the province of Ontario leads the world in American ginseng production with nearly 6,000 acres under cultivation. Bob Beyfuss, a fellow writer and former colleague, is a retired Cornell Extension Agent renowned for his expertise in all things ginseng. He has written many books and pamphlets, some of which are now hard to find, but his booklet “The Practical Guide to Growing Ginseng” is available as a pdf download through Cornell University at https://ecommons.cornell.edu/handle/1813/54771. Also, a USDA-sponsored YouTube channel features many of Bob’s demonstrations and talks. You can see them at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zy63UjB3DaA.
A considerable body of research supports ginseng’s health benefits. With your doctor’s OK, you might consider trying this wonder-root if you’re getting on in years and have already begun to collect the usual set of elder-health issues. But don’t chuck your prescription bottles just yet. Someday you may want to pretend you really are old.
Paul Hetzler, a former Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator, is still pretty young. For a baby-boomer.