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Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

Ginseng

Both quinine and digitalis illustrate the successful incorporation of clinically effective treatments into conventional medical practice following their initial discovery as a folk remedy. Sometimes, however, the clinical effectiveness of plant ingredients originally encountered as folk remedies remains to be proven. An example of this is ginseng, the name given to a group of slow-growing perennial plants of the genus panax, native to North America and eastern Asia.

Flowering ginseng plant, with leaves and root also shownFlowering ginseng plant, with rootThe root of the ginseng plant was, and is, highly prized in the Far East as an aphrodisiac and stimulant. European Jesuit missionaries travelling in China in the 17th century noted that its supply was a closely guarded and lucrative monopoly of the Chinese emperor, the plant being gathered by state employees from fenced plantations, kept under armed guard.

As the root was widely regarded in China as a cure-all, or panacea (hence the later Linnean name for the genus, panax), strenuous efforts were made by European travellers to identify an obtainable source of ginseng, and in 1718 Michel Sarrazin (1659-1734), a French-Canadian surgeon, sent an account of a North American variant to the French Académie Royale des Sciences.

French merchants in Quebec soon engaged a network of indigenous gatherers to supply them with roots of North American ginseng for export to China, and the trade initially proved to be highly profitable. 

However, a combination of oversupply and Chinese dissatisfaction with what was judged by many customers to be an inferior product to Asian ginseng led to a decline in the value of the North American plant, and by 1818, when Massachusetts doctor Jacob Bigelow (1787-1879) published his American medical botany, it was of little economic importance to the United States or to Britain’s Canadian colonies.

Bigelow sums up the generally prevailing scepticism of western medicine towards ginseng’s value as a cure-all:

As far as ginseng has been tried medicinally in this country and in Europe, its virtues do not appear, by any means, to justify the high estimation of it by the Chinese. That it is not a very active substance, is proved by the fact, that a whole root may be eaten without inconvenience … Ginseng is principally sold by our druggists as a masticatory, many people having acquired an habitual fondness for chewing it.

Today ginseng is widely used in herbal teas and other stimulant drinks.

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