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There’s no denying that modern medicine can be frightening. Industrial drug production often seems more focused on generating a profit for researchers than healing the ailments of the sufferers, who have little choice but to buy their products. For many, this is unsettling.

These fears have caused many people to turn away from commercially produced medications, and instead turn towards all-natural, medicinal herbs from the forests around them. One of the most highly sought-out is ginseng, a relatively rare root that is perhaps the most famous healing botanical on the planet. Though people in Western cultures tend to only consume ginseng in trace amounts that prevent it from giving them many health benefits, herb lovers in the far east value ginseng above all other plants for its healing, energizing and life-prolonging properties.

History and mystique around ginseng

A sketched colorful illustration of a whole ginseng plant, including its fleshy roots.

The ginseng plant (whole, including its fleshy roots).

Named after the Chinese term “rénshén”, meaning “man root”, ginseng is a slow-growing perennial plant with fleshy roots that often look like a man’s legs. It is purported to keep the body at a healthy equilibrium and help to restore well-being. The value of the plant comes from its roots, which are light-colored and fork-shaped, topped with a long green stalk.

Worldwide, ginseng comes in two main forms: Asian (Panax ginseng) and American (Panax quinquefolius). These two different types have different health properties: Asian ginseng is known for its health benefits while American ginseng is a better aid for stress relief.

China

The Chinese discovered the powers of ginseng over five thousand years ago in the mountains of Manchuria. There, the human-shaped herb has considered to be a symbol of divine harmony and was praised for its rejuvenating powers. Beginning two thousand years ago, Chinese scholars began to write extensively of its benefits and emperors began to use it for everything; from their teas to soaps, lotions and creams.

By the third century, Chinese demand outstripped its supply and an international trade for the coveted herb in exchange for Chinese silk began.

North America

Ginseng wasn’t considered valuable in America until 1716, when a Jesuit priest heard tales of its value in the East and decided to seek some on his own shore. After he discovered the American ginseng that Native Americans had been using medicinally for centuries, he began to export it to China where the market exploded until the herb was harvested to near extinction in the mid-1970s.

Since then, careful harvesting techniques and productive cultivation methods have caused American Ginseng to bounce back from the brink, and international trade has been growing steadily ever since.

Uses for ginseng

The ginsenosides found in the root is the active ingredient in ginseng and is purported to have many health benefits, including the ability to prevent inflammation by naturally suppressing the immune system.

 A fleshy ginseng root placed on a dark wooden surface.

A root of a ginseng plant.

Ginseng root can be effectively seeped into a tea, added as a natural supplement to pills and vitamins, and even be used as an additive in sports drinks.

Both American ginseng and Asian ginseng are believed to have a considerable benefit for the consumer, including an energy boost, lower blood sugar levels, treat diabetes, reduce stress levels and increase relaxation, and reduce sexual dysfunction in men.

However, scientists and health professionals are questioning these claims because of the lack of standardization on dose size of ginseng and the limited amount of quality research that has been conducted to test its true effectiveness.

Ways to grow and harvest ginseng

Because ginseng needs moist, deciduous climates with consistent winters to grow well, it’s not suited for everywhere in the world. However, if you live in an amenable climate, it might be possible for you to grow or forage for your very own ginseng. Whether you choose to use it yourself or sell it for a tidy profit is up to you.

When looking to harvest ginseng, the main decision to be made is whether to cultivate your own or harvest it from the wild.

Wild harvesting

Almost without exception, wild ginseng is far more valuable than cultivated varieties, but it can be difficult to find. The best time of year to harvest wild ginseng is in late summer, when the plant’s berries have already gone to seed. If you come across a plant with berries still on it, pinch them off and toss them on the ground in hopes of propagating the species.

Older ginseng is also more valuable than young, so look for plants that have at least four prongs for harvesting. This both allows the plant roots to grow to a large size and gives it several years to produce seeds. Carefully dig up the root and keep it unbroken. No need to fully wash it off – in many places slightly dirty roots actually commanded higher prices because of the older appearance it gives them!

For more advice on how to best seek out and harvest wild ginseng, look at this link.

Please note: proceed with caution every time you harvest forest products. Be sure you properly identify the plants you are harvesting and practice good forest etiquette by always leaving some of the plant behind in order to help the species to continue to thrive.

Cultivation

Growing your own ginseng can be a good way to ensure a tidy profit for yourself, but be warned of looters. It’s not unheard of for people to have their patches harvested and stolen away in the dead of night.

To grow your own, you will need to buy seeds from a reputable dealer like Southern Exposure Seed Exchange or gather your own berries from mature plants in the late summer. Be sure to “winter” the seeds you gather so that they will be ready to germinate come spring.

You will need to replicate the partially sunny conditions of a forest for your plants, either by growing them in a patch of woods or under shade cloth. Keep the area well watered, and fertilized, but as much as possible try to keep the conditions similar to the natural world. Your crop should be ready to be harvested between the sixth and eighth year of harvest.

Need more tips for cultivating your own wild herbs? Check out this link.

Other herbs to harvest

Ginseng may be the most well known and profitable wild herb, but there are plenty of others that you can harvest for your own medicinal benefit or possibly even to sell. As always, just be sure you properly identify everything you harvest!

  • Burdock (Arctium species)

    Burdock can be used as a food and medicine. A tea made from the roots is an excellent diuretic, blood purifier, and digestive aid, and the high levels of inulin make it a good diabetes treatment. An important part of Chinese medicine, burdock can be found throughout the Old World.

  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

    An herbal tea made from this strongly scented flower can be used to treat colds, fevers, indigestion and even internal bleeding. Only take this herb in small amounts, as large quantities can become toxic to your body. You can find yarrow throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

  • Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

    Found just about everywhere, the common dandelion is one of the easiest medicinal herbs to identify. A tea made from the roots can be used to treat problems in the gallbladder, kidney, liver, and constipation, and the greens can be chopped up to make a delicious salad. There is also some evidence that the roots might work as an antibiotic against yeast infections.

Hopefully, this introduction to ginseng will get you motivated to seek out native medicinal plants in your own region of the world. Eliminate some of your dependence on modern medicine by getting out there with a guidebook to see what you can find!

About Author

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Lydia Noyes is an Appalachian homesteader and writer that lives on a land trust deep in the mountains of West Virginia.