Panax quinquefolius (ginseng)
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Painting by Christine Andreae
I was attracted to ginseng because of its centuries-long fame as a magical cure-all. The word panacea derives from the Latin word “Panax.” Although ginseng can be cultivated, farmed plants are considered less virtuous, and therefore are less valuable than wild ginseng. Because ginseng is still aggressively hunted, and because its seeds take two years to germinate, it is a rare plant. It listed as “threatened” on many endangered species lists. Not surprisingly, the whereabouts of local “sang” patches are a jealously guarded secret. I was fortunate enough to obtain a mature wild ginseng from a friend who dug it up in the woods and presented it to me in a large pot. Throughout the summer of 2008, I sketched and photographed it from bloom (a miniscule flower) to fruit (startlingly heavy-looking on a thread like stem). In the fall, I planted its seeds back in the woods, unearthed it from its pot, and finally had my first look at its legendary root.
Compared to its canopy of leaves and long stem, the root looked quite small. Furthermore, many of the photographs and drawings I’d seen showed the root propped upright to suggest a priapic “little man.” In fact, the name ginseng is thought to derive from the Chinese word schin-seng meaning “man-plant”. (Sanders, p.46) But my root looked distinctly feminine to me: sensuous and plump as a reclining odalisque. I took the artistic license to curl its long stem into a womb-shape around its recumbent golden root.
My painting is in watercolor and is life-sized.
William Byrd II (1674-1744), Virginia planter and adventurer, gave the plant an enthusiastic endorsement: “. . .as a help to bear Fatigue I us’d to chew a Root of Ginseng as walk’t along. This kept upmy Spiritis, and made me trip away as mibly in my half Jack-Boots as younger men cou’d in their shoes. . .Its vertues are that it gives an uncommon Warmth and Vigour to the Blood, and frisks the Spirits beyond any other Cordial. It cheers the Heart even of a Man that has a bad Wife, and makes him look down with great Composure on the crosses of the World. . .It helps the Memory, and would quicken even Helvetian dullness. . .It comforts the Stomach, and Strengthens the Bowels, preventing Colicks and Fluxes. In one Word, it will make a Man live a great while, and very well while he does live. And what is more, it will even make Old Age amiable by rending it lively, chearful , and good-humour’d. However ‘tis of little use in the Feats of Love, as a great prince once found, who hearing of its invigorating Quality, sent as far as China for some of it, though his ladys could not boast of any Advantage thereby.” (Blanton p.183)
In the 1700s Jesuit missionaries created a booming demand in China for American ginseng. Fortunes were made in exporting ginseng. Daniel Boone tried to make his fortune both as a fur trapper and as a ginseng hunter. In 1788, he lost 15 casks or “tuns” of ginseng when his keel boat was wrecked on the Ohio river.(Morgan, p. 367 )
Most herbalists classify ginseng as an “adaptogen” which supports the body during times of stress. The therapeutic uses of ginseng most supported by scientific evidence are: immunostimulation, lowering of blood glucose in Type 2 diabetes, and vascular smooth muscle relaxation in coronary artery disease. Other research suggests ginseng may increase mental efficiency and physical performance, but that large doses may raise blood pressure. The main pharmacologically active constituents in ginseng roots are referred to as “ginsenosides” of which at least 25 have been identified. (Foster and Duke, p.58-60; NSD)