The Chinese Consider Ginseng A Cure For All Ailments

by Habeeb Salloum, May 17, 2003 | Destinations: China / Beijing

First mentioned by the Emperor Sen Nug 5,000 years ago, ginseng has long been thought by the Chinese to contain the essence of the earth in condensed form. For hundreds of years, it was prized by the aristocracy of that land as the root of life and a fabulous cure-all. In Chinese medical tradition, it was believed that ginseng enlightened the mind and increased wisdom. Their doctors considered it a love plant which boosted the sexual powers of the old. For centuries, they also valued it for its restorative and recuperative powers. In that ancient country and the surrounding lands, it has been an herbal medicine employed for at least 2,000 years as a remedy for every conceivable ailment.

An almost mythical herb, ginseng is a fascinating plant, cloaked in mystery and superstition. Considered by the peoples of East Asia as the medicine of medicines, it has been employed to prolong life, as an anti-aging treatment and a healing agent for virtually all human illnesses.

In the medieval Asiatic world, the huge demand on this root made it so scarce that wars were fought between the Chinese and Tartars for good ginseng growing territory. On the other hand, in the forests of North America, especially in the Appalachian Mountains, this herb remained plentiful long after Columbus' Voyage of Discovery. The Indians employed it as a remedy for almost all diseases. They were as fervent as the Chinese in attributing to it extraordinary powers, making it one of their much-sought-after herbal roots.

After North America was discovered by the Europeans, the high price in China of that much sought after herb made the gathering of wild ginseng profitable in the New World. For over two centuries the white man harvested this exotic herb, then dried and shipped it to China. In the subsequent years, due to the enormous demand for ginseng in that country, it almost disappeared in the wilderness of North America. Enterprising farmers then began to cultivate this slow growing plant. However, this has only met with some success.

The small ginseng ( genus panax) plant, native to East Asia and North America is very difficult to grow. It requires practically virgin soil and the seeds need coolness, moisture, shade and good drainage. A wooded hillside with trees providing shade is ideal for the plant to thrive. If planted on cleared land, the ground must be landscaped to imitate well-drained forest.

There is also a huge capital investment involved and the plant must be pampered. Expensive seeds, building shades and their maintenance; protection from innumerable diseases; delicate harvesting, handling and curing; and the years it takes the roots to grow to collectable size make them very high-priced.

After planting, a single stem from each seed sprouts above ground, then separates into a whorl of compound leaves. In about 4 years, green flowers blossom from the centre of the leaves and bright red berries follow.

The fabled herb, fleshy and forked, is the root of this plant. From its shape, often assuming the shape of a human, the Chinese gave us the name ginseng (from jen shen - `human shaped' or `man-root'). In China, the root's high price comes from its human-like form. A simple broken limb lowers the value. It takes about 6 years for the root to reach about 3 inches long and 1 inch thick - the marketable size.

When washed, peeled and dried, the roots are known as white ginseng - the most common type sold. At times, the roots are steamed and fried for better preservation. They then become much more potent and take on a reddish colour, becoming known as red ginseng.

For hundreds of years, both types have been employed in China as a popular panacea. Called goo-lai-san (elixir of life), they are valued above all other botanicals and are prescribed for strength, longevity and virility. To them are attributed the power to heal everything, from a cure for colds, constipation, heart ailments, inflammation of the urinary tract to loss of appetite. They are also believed to have great sexual power - from a remedy for bareness in women to stimulation of masculine potency.

In the same fashion, on the other side of the world, the Indians of North America believed that ginseng had exceptional curable qualities. They made a medical tonic from this wonder root and utilized it for the alleviation of cramps, coughs, fevers, headaches, menstrual problems, impotency, infertility, rheumatism, shortness of breath and skin sores.

In our times, it has been found that all these attributions made by the Chinese and Indians were not built on fantasies. Scientists in Russia have discovered that the root contains medical properties which strengthen the heart, soothe the nervous system, increase the flow of hormones and have a general healing and rejuvenating influence on the body. In addition, during lab tests in other countries it has been found that ginseng contains an ingredient effective in treating high and low blood pressures, rheumatic pain, chronic fatigue and alleviating nervous disorders.

Today, the greatest health attribute claimed for this Chinese panacea is that it increases the body's endurance and protects against physical and mental stress. Even though these claims have not been fully scientifically proven, researchers have established that ginseng is a major revitaliser and has useful pharmacological effects in conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, anemia, arteriosclerosis, depression, diabetes, edema, hypertension and ulcers. Ginseng has no side effects and even its reputation as a sexual stimulant has been found to have some merit.

Besides its medical properties, ginseng can also be utilized in cooking. It adds an aromatic and delightful taste to food and drinks. Its fennel-like odour combined with its licorice taste makes it excellent for soups and teas. The Chinese, Koreans and others in East Asia employ this exotic herb in a good number of foods in the same way as ginger. However, the prohibitive price of the root makes it virtually impossible for the majority of people to include it as an ingredient in the regular cuisine.

Ginseng can be purchased in its natural shape, as a tea, or in the form of capsules, powder, spirits or honey. The North American wild or cultivated types are much cheaper in price than the Chinese. All varieties are found in Chinese markets and most health stores.

The most popular of today's aphrodisiacs, this wonder root is tied to the past but is fast becoming the herb of the future. Called by the Chinese `queen of the medical herbs', ginseng remains as important in their traditional medicine as ever, but its reputation has expanded much beyond that once forbidden land. The other peoples of the world are beginning to appreciate its legendary health-giving properties.

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Ginseng Tea
Chicken With Ginseng

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