Sep 10, 2015

Ginseng

By Lawanda Jungwirth

The root of the ginseng plant has been used around the world to cure a multitude of ills for hundreds of years.  If you believe everything you read, it cures almost any physical, emotional or spiritual ailment:  exhaustion, fatigue, infirmity, liver disease, stress, wasting from chronic disease, weakness, alcoholism, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, gastritis, high cholesterol, immune system problems, infertility, liver cancer, lung cancer, low libido, radiation sickness, shock, ulcers, amnesia, anxiety, weight loss, osteoporosis . . . and there are many more!

Ginseng is the most widely prescribed herb in China and one of the top sellers in North American health food and natural health stores.  So it’s no surprise that ginseng is endangered in the wild and that the price has skyrocketed in the past few years.  One reputable herb company offers forest-grown ginseng root at $38.50 for 6 grams.  That’s $2,913.00 a pound!

Ginseng is grown commercially in two principal places in the world:  Korea and Wisconsin.  Yup, that’s right.  We’re rather famous for it actually, and many people in Asian communities prefer Wisconsin-grown ginseng over the Korean-grown.  In fact, Wisconsin exports 80% of its ginseng to China and other Asian nations.  Ginseng is native to the eastern third of North America, along the entire eastern seaboard from Quebec to Florida, but Wisconsin ginseng is known around the world.

Ginseng grows in the shade and is rather inconspicuous on the forest floor until its bright red berries make their appearance.  Until then, its simple, erect stems grow to about a foot high.  It has one to five leaves, also called prongs, each divided into five finely-toothed leaflets.  Each plant has a single ball-shaped greenish-white flower.  That flower is what turns into a small red ball of berries, similar to a large raspberry, held above the plant.

Since ginseng was over-harvested in the 1970s, 18 states, including Wisconsin, have regulated its harvest and sale.  Any person who cuts, roots up, gathers or destroys wild ginseng for sale must have a valid wild ginseng harvest license issued by the DNR prior to harvest. You do not need a license to cut, root up, gather or destroy wild ginseng growing on your own land if the ginseng is not sold.

There are strict rules that those who dig ginseng for sale must follow, and to be a good steward of the plant, it is wise to follow those same rules when digging ginseng for private use.  The season for ginseng harvest is September 1 through November 1.  Harvest only plants that have three or more true leaves and a flowering/fruiting stalk.  All seeds should be replanted immediately in the vicinity of the parent plant to ensure a ginseng population for future generations.  Plant seeds separately, an inch deep and two to four feet apart and give some consideration to reducing visibility and access to both deer and other harvesters.  Deer do not seek out ginseng over other plants, but will eat it if they come across it.   Harvest no more than 25% of the mature plants in a population.  Those would be the plants that have three to four prongs and red fruit.  To prevent someone else from coming along and harvesting an additional 25% from the same patch, you can remove the leaves from the other nearby ginseng plants.  By harvest time in fall, growth will not be affected as the leaves are about to fall off the plant anyway.

It takes a long time for a ginseng plant to grow to harvestable size.  Whether a seed plants itself or is assisted by humans, it takes TWO to FIVE winters before it will germinate on a spring day.  Then it remains a one-leaf plant for several years, while its root accumulates enough reserves to put out another leaf.  It will remain at the two-leaf stage for ANOTHER three to five years before developing into what is considered an adult plant with three leaves.  Left undisturbed, in old age, a ginseng plant may have four or even five leaves.  That’s a lot of waiting around!

During all the years that the ginseng plant is quietly saving up energy to produce a leaf or three, it stores its energy in its roots.  The name ginseng derives from the Chinese name “man root” and a look at the photos will explain that.  The most beneficial compound in the roots are called ginsenosides.  These are the most widely studied compounds in the ginseng root and are associated with increased energy.

Even though ginseng is a natural product, some people experience unpleasant side effects.  It may interact unpredictably with prescription or over-the-counter drugs so don’t use it if you take any of those regularly.  Some people suffer restlessness, inability to sleep, nausea, and headaches, as well as changes in blood pressure and nosebleeds.  If you try ginseng and any of those side effects occur, stop using it immediately.

Hey - if you read that last paragraph out loud real fast, it sounds like the tag end of a TV commercial for any of a number of prescription drugs!

MAJOR THREATS TO THE GINSENG POPULATION

  • Over harvesting
  • Not replanting seeds
  • Harvesting plants too young
  • Harvesting plants out of season
  • Deer
  • Climate change
  • Invasive plants