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"To help cure fatigue, I used to chew a root of ginseng as I walked along. This kept up my spirit and gave vigor to the blood. It cheers the heart of a man that has a bad wife and makes him look down with the crosses of the world. It will make old age amiable by rendering it lively, cheerful and good humored." 

Colonel William Byrd,   History of the Dividing Line


image from Ginseng is believed by many to be one of the cure-all's of the decade and by some to be as potent as love potion number 9.  According to folklore, extracts of the ginseng root can be used effectively as an aphrodisiac and as an aid in prolonging youth.  This wonder root has been used for thousands of years and is one of the most sought after and highly regarded commodities in the herb world. So why should we add this to our vitamin shelf along with all the other miracle cures so necessary for survival in today’s world? And is it really necessary to include with our Valentine's dinner recipes? Linda Robinson-Hidas an herbalist from Amherst and Iain Stewart from Cornucopia in Northampton helped us to find some answers to these questions.


Ginseng, the source of a stimulant and supposed aphrodisiac, is extracted from the roots of the Araliaoeae (ivy) family. The ginseng root is very selective of its environment. While, it is native to China, American ginseng can be found in eastern and mid western North America. It takes up to six years for the root to mature in the wild and up to ten when fostered by man. Once it has been harvested the soil can not be used again for another 25 years as most of the nutrients have been consumed by the ginseng root. Due to the fact that it is so sought after, it's long maturity and the fact that it can be grown in so few places, it has long been on the endangered species list. The processing of the ginseng root is key to its value. The two main forms available are 'red' and 'white'. Red ginseng is steamed and then dried and White ginseng is dried immediately after collection. If the ginseng is not dried properly it looses all effectiveness.


Some reports indicate that ginseng was used as far back as 5,000 years ago in China. There it was kept a highly guarded secret of the ruling classes, as it was considered to have powers which would heighten a man's virility. As it later became available to the general public, ancient Chinese would keep a great quanitity of ginseng in their homes in case the head of the household became gravely ill.  He would then be kept alive with large amounts of the ginseng until the next in line could return home to learn where all the family treasures were buried. Worlds away in North America, Jesuit Missionaries make note of Indians using ginseng as a preventative and energizer as early as 1716. It was not long after a Canadian priest made the correlation between the wonder plant of the orient and that of the American Indians, that the value in ginseng trade was realized. In the early part of the 1700's diggers were paid cents a pound to harvest the root. Fur traders would sell those same roots in China for $5 per pound. Both Daniel Boone and John Jacob Astor made their fortunes on the trade of Ginseng to China. By 1752 the trade totaled $100,000. Seeking profits rather than quality, roots were not allowed time to mature, nor were they given sufficient time to dry. Shipments of ginseng to the Orient became so poor that the market crashed. It took over 100 years for good faith to be restored and heavy trade to be re established.


By the 1880's wild ginseng was becoming scarce. It took a good 10 years to achieve minimal success in cultivating the root. Even today ginseng is still very difficult to propagate. During its growing season, the root requires constant attention. During the spring, summer and fall considerable efforts must be made to keep it properly shaded and in cool moist air.


Asian ginseng is classified as Panax pseudoginseng, American ginseng as Panax quinquefolius. Translated literally, the word ginseng means "Man Root", apparently due to the fact that many believed the root resembles the male organ. However, when the name was translated into English, the translators took the Panax of Chinese ginseng to mean "panacea" or "cure all". This misinterpretation has led to a misinterpretation in the way the Chinese used it as well as unsubstantiated claims that it would cure all that ails you. Historically, the Chinese believed in a system of preventive medicine. A doctor was paid when his patients were healthy, and not when they became ill. In this sense, ginseng was often prescribed to prevent a person from becoming run down and eventually sick.  Some of the ailments ginseng has been touted as fighting off are cancer, heart attacks, kidney disease, tuberculosis, diabetes, declining potency in older men  and aging for both men and women.


Ginseng goes to work when it enters the body orally and is digested.  During the process of digestion ginseng helps the cells of the body to turn the oxygen we breathe into heightened energy levels. Both Asian and American ginseng are known as “adaptogens". They are labeled as such because they help our bodies in adapting to biological stresses. Ginseng has been scientifically proven to: 

  • Purify the blood of toxins,
  • Increase production of red blood cells,
  • Lower blood pressure,
  • Lower 'bad' cholesterol,
  • Increase 'good' Cholesterol,
  • Lower high blood sugar,
  • Stimulate intestinal digestion,
  • Prevent cellular damage from oxidation,
  • Strengthen the immune system,
  • Increase physical stamina and mental function.
There is a difference between the two Ginsengs we are focusing on. Asian ginseng gives energy and relieves stress from someone who is tired and lethargic, while American ginseng has more active ingredients, producing a calming effect and will help a hyper or nervous person adapted to the stresses in their life.  Contention is held that while American ginseng is suitable for young and old alike and Chinese ginseng works very well for those who are both aged and or infirm.


There are ginsengs on the market which do not have these same medicinal purposes.  Such pretenders are known as Siberian Ginseng, South American Ginseng, Wild Red Ginseng, Devil's club, Sarsaparilla and Walpers.  If you are unsure of whether or not the ginseng you are using is authentic ginseng, true varieties will have Panax in their scientific names. While large amounts of ginseng are not harmful, most that are readily available comes in a processed form containing fillers, preservatives and other unknown substances. It is advised that you consult your physician and take small amounts at first to determine whether or not you suffer from side effects due to those added ingredients. Many articles note 500mg of ginseng; 2 times a day is more than enough for anyone. And even though it is very safe, there are times when ginseng should be avoided, such as if you are pregnant or suffer from headaches, palpitations or insomnia.


Ginseng is by no means a quick fix and unfortunately can not create passion from thin air.  It is however, a root of many possibilities. If you are looking at a new approach to enjoying your life, ginseng should be added to your recipe. In time it will help put the bounce back into your step and renew your zest for life, which in turn can only do positive things for your love life.


If your romance is looking for a little vitality, here are two ideas to make your own love potion and or aphrodisiac out of this root's sweet flavor and smell.


Fresh Ginseng Tea

Add 4-6 thinly sliced pieces of ginseng to 1 cup of hot water and let steep for at least 3 minutes.


Tossed Ginseng Salad

1/2 ounce of ginseng root which has been soaked in water for a day, until it is soft.

1 head of romaine lettuce

1 red onion, chopped

2 green onions, sliced thin,

Raspberry Vinaigrette

Slice ginseng thin and mix with vegetables. Add vinaigrette as desired.




 Photo Credit:  Foto Search

First Published in Cooks Source, 1998


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