Panax quinquefolius, American Ginseng - 3 (2)

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Family: Araliaceae (Ginseng)

by Janice Stiefel

Other Names: Plant of Life, Man's Health, Man Root, Root of Immortality, Tartar Root, Five-Finger, Red Berry, and Sang

Range: Minnesota to Quebec and south

Habitat: Humus-rich woodland soil, does not tolerate high-acid soil. Prefers a north-facing hillside with little or no sunlight.

Description: Rising from the centre of three, large compound leaves, arranged in a circle, is an umbel of small, greenish-white or yellowish-green flowers that are scented like Lily-of-the-Valley (and almost camouflaged by the foliage). The flowers are about 1/12-inch wide, with five petals. The leaves are 5-12 inches long, each with five pointed, toothed leaflets. The two leaflets closest to the stem are smaller than the other three. A cluster of red berries forms the fruit after the plant blooms. Height: 8-24 inches. Flowering: May to August.

Comments: In 1704, a French explorer returned to Paris with a sample of what turned out to be Wild American Ginseng from southern Canada. Jesuits in France alerted their brethren in Canada to its enormous value in China. Some time later, Jesuits in Montreal shipped many boatloads to Canton, where other Jesuits sold it to the Chinese for what was then a king's ransom -- $5 a pound. By the end of the 19th century, Ginseng was so heavily collected that today it is very rare in its natural wild habitat. Ginseng requires about seven years to develop roots to optimum potential for harvest.

Medicinal Use: Because the root is shaped like a human, it has always been considered "good for the whole man" and revered for its medicinal value. Few wildflowers have been studied so extensively or searched for so diligently. It is said that Ginseng roots give "uncommon warmth and vigor to the blood; they frisk the spirits, cheer the heart even of a man who has a bad wife, and they help the memory. They will make a man live a great while and very well while he does live."
   Early pioneers and Native Americans used the root to treat stomach and bronchial disorders, sore gums, asthma, neck pain, and much more. Of all the claims made for this gnarled root, probably the most interesting one is that it is said to help the brain retrieve a learned skill that hasn't been used for a long time. Besides improving memory, it increases concentration and hand coordination. Ginseng seems to act as a kind of shock absorber, protecting the body from stress and allowing the system to bounce back more quickly. There is also evidence that it will steadily build the body's resistance to disease and enhance athletic performance. Its medicinal uses are vast and worthy of further study. This column is only touching the tip-of-the-iceberg, because volumes have been written on Ginseng.

Name Origin: The genus name, Panax (PAY-nacks), is taken from the Greek word, panakas, meaning "a panacea," in reference to the plant’s remarkable medicinal properties. The species name, quinquefolius (kwin-kwe-FO-li-us), means "with five leaves." The family name, Araliaceae, is pronounced a-ray-li-AY-see-ee.

Author's Note: The only place I have ever found Ginseng growing naturally, in the wild, was along one of the trails in the Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest in Wisconsin. One early July morning, as mountain bikers were whizzing past us, oblivious to the luxurious habitat they were passing, my husband and I saw a robust specimen of a Wild American Ginseng in full bloom. We couldn't believe our eyes! Risking the danger of getting hit by a speeding mountain bike, I set up my tripod and camera and was able to photograph it.
   I tried growing Ginseng plants on our north-facing hill along the valley of the Mullet River north of Plymouth, WI (Sheboygan County). They thrived for a time, but slugs relished the plants and would not allow them to survive. After the fourth year of sprouting, growing 1-2 inches and getting chewed off, the plants no longer came back, except for one.
  When we moved to Door County, WI, I brought that one survivor with us. It flourished for two years and in 2001 did not return. In this case, I'm not sure if slugs killed it.

c 2002 Janice Stiefel

[BOX: Cultivation Information
According to William Cullina’s Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada, "The roots require a moist but well-drained soil....The plant also needs the dappled shade of deciduous trees to flower and fruit."]

Janice Stiefel is a naturalist, writer and photographer who lives in Door County, Wisconsin. She is the editor of Wisconsin Flora, published by the Botanical Club of Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Entomological Society Newsletter.