Panax Quinquefolius L. (Ginseng)
The genus name Panax comes from the Greek pas, all, and akos, cure; or panakes, all healing, referring to the medicinal properties of the ginseng plant. Panacea was a goddess in Greek mythology who could heal all diseases, and who found a remedy for maintaining good health.
Frequently one sees the scientific name spelled "Panax quinquefolium," in the belief that the genus name Panax is neuter, and so requires the second word of the binomial to use the Latin suffix "um." However, the name Panax is masculine in both Greek and Latin, and the Code of Botanical Nomenclature requires that the masculine form be used, i.e., quinquefolius.
English Common Names
American ginseng, Canadian ginseng, five-fingers, occidental ginseng, sang, seng.
The name ginseng, first applied to Asian ginseng (P. ginseng), is derived from the Chinese ren-shen (in standard Chinese piryin) [also rendered jen-sheng, jin-hsien, shen seng, and shinseng]. This is usually translated as "man-shaped root," but may be better rendered as "man-essence" the name originates from (a) the fancied resemblance of ginseng root to the human form, or (b) from the belief that the root represents the essence of the earth crystallized in a human form.
Classification and Geography
Panax is a genus of perennial herbs, with two species in eastern North America and perhaps 5-10 species in Asia. Best known is the eastern Asian species P. ginseng C.A. Mey., known as ginseng, Asian ginseng, Oriental ginseng, Chinese ginseng and Korean ginseng, which is the major source of ginseng of commerce.
American ginseng occurs from southern Ontario and south-western Quebec south to Oklahoma, Louisiana, and northern Florida.
In North America, two species could be confused with American ginseng. Dwarf ginseng (P. trifolius L.) is a smaller species with stemless leaflets, which does not appear to have the properties of American ginseng, and is not harvested or cultivated. It is nevertheless a very unusual plant being one of the 0.1% of flowering plants that can change their gender from male to female and vice versa.
Wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis L.) and other species of Aralia are also superficially similar, but have pinnate instead of palmate leaves.
Ginseng occurs in colonies of a few to hundreds of plants in rich, shady, deciduous forests, in deep leaf litter. Sites are frequently on northern or north-eastern cool rocky slopes, commonly in areas with limestone outcrops in damp but well-drained soils.
American ginseng thrives in 75% shade, and even shadier locations in the southern limits of its range. Clear-cutting of virgin forests and over-harvesting have drastically reduced the size of wild populations.
Although American ginseng cannot change its sex like dwarf ginseng, it can modify its gender through varying ratios of flowers with one or two ovules. In general, the larger and older plants that are able to mature more seeds can be viewed as more female. The flowers are adapted to cross-pollination through different maturation times of the male and female parts of the flower.
Soon after the petals separate, the anthers mature and release pollen, prior to the stigmatic lobes separating and becoming receptive. Both wild and cultivated plants of American ginseng are visited by a wide variety of insects, but a few species of small bees are the most important pollinators. The attractive fruits are probably dispersed by animals.
Ginseng has been used in Asian medicine for perhaps 5000 years. Wild American ginseng was apparently used by many Indian tribes for increasing the fertility of women, as a tonic to increase mental powers, and to treat headache, cramps, fevers, rheumatism, and cough. However, the extent to which these uses were acquired from visiting Europeans is uncertain.
Ginseng is the world's most widely used medicine, a consequence of its popularity in Asian medicine. Like vitamin C, it is widely used as a preventive medicine, and to maintain good health.
It is commonly believed, especially in western countries, that it is an aphrodisiac, has amazing healing properties, provides energy, lowers blood pressure, retards the aging process, cures neurological disorders, and speeds recovery from sickness.
Ginseng has been said to enhance digestion, stimulate blood circulation, relieve fatigue and cure blood diseases, and in general have a stimulating tonic effect. Ginseng has the reputation of being the ultimate elixir of life, a symbol of strength and long life, and a source of happiness.
An extremely impressive number of ginseng recipes are employed in Asian medicine for various ailments. Particularly in the Orient, ginseng preparations are used medicinally to treat hypotension, hypertension, stress, insomnia, fatigue, depression, arthritis, diabetes, high cholesterol levels, bronchitis, some cancers, anemia, impotence, and premature aging.
There is some good evidence for the therapeutic value of ginseng, but it has been a subject of continuing controversy, with western scientists generally rejecting the claims of eastern medicine that ginseng has manifest benefits in the treatment of numerous illnesses. Much of ginseng medical research has been supported by those with commercial motives, and the design of experiments has often allowed researchers to draw whatever conclusions they wished, but could hundreds of millions of users be wrong?
The incidence of adverse reactions to ginseng is very low. Nevertheless it has been suggested that those with hay fever, asthma, emphysema, and cardiac or blood clotting problems, as well as pregnant women, should limit consumption.
Ginseng's alleged virtues are believed to be due to a large variety of root triterpene saponins called ginsenosides (less frequently panaxosides and panaquilins). These occur in the foliage as well as the roots, but by tradition only the roots are used. Many of these chemicals were assigned different names by American and Asian ginseng researchers, which of course can be confusing.
Ginseng is almost exclusively used medicinally, although there is some very minor consumption of the root as a vegetable.