Korean ginseng Panax ginseng Araliaceae

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Korean ginseng is a small herbaceous plant growing wild in mountainous areas from Nepal to Manchuria, and from eastern Siberia to Korea. The earliest mention of it comes from a book of the Chien Han Era (33-48 bc), but by the 3rd century ad China's demand for ginseng created international trade of the root which allowed Korea to obtain Chinese silk and medicine in exchange for wild ginseng. Long before Vasco da Gama opened up a sea route to Cathay (China) in 1497, the "Three Kingdoms" (the Koreas and part of Manchuria) had a thriving trade selling ginseng to China. Soon after, word began to filter through to Europe about the northern woodland plant that had miraculous healing and restorative powers. The first reference to ginseng in Europe dates from 1643 and is a traveller's report published in Rome. In 1653, Hendrick Hamel of Holland and his fellow seamen were sailing from Formosa to Japan; during a lengthy storm they were blown off course and ran aground on Cheju Island, Korea. They were taken into custody by the Korean government and held on what was meant to be a permanent basis. In Hamel's diary, he noted that Korea paid "tribute" to China entirely in the form of ginseng. Three times a year an envoy would arrive from China to collect it. In 1709, a Jesuit named Father Jartous returned to Europe from an assignment in China. In the Memoirs of the Royal Academy in Paris he wrote of the amazing medicinal ginseng root he had learned about. Later it was translated into English for the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.

Although probably originally used as food, it quickly became revered for its strength-giving and rejuvenating powers, and its human shape became a powerful symbol of divine harmony on earth. Ginseng roots often resemble a human-like figure, which is why they are referred to as "human-root." The more human-like the root appears, the higher its value. The age of the root plays an important factor in assuming this human-like shape—thus, older roots are more valuable than younger ones. For customers in China, the shape of the root is very important: a 'skinny' root does not have the beauty that a larger one has and, hence, is not as valuable. Chinese herbalists have prescribed ginseng root for centuries to treat problems of the digestive and pulmonary systems, nervous disorders, diabetes, and a low sex drive in men. It is said to increase energy and improve memory. Ginseng is mainly used in modern evidence-based Western phytotherapy as an "adapto-gen" (a substance which helps the body to deal with, or adapt to, stress or adverse external conditions): to stimulate the central nervous system, increase resistance to fatigue and stress, and to improve memory.

Interestingly, in 1711, Father Joseph Francois Lafitau, a Jesuit, was sent from France to a mission near present-day Montreal, Canada. Jartous' writings eventually reached him in 1716. Realising that the local latitude was about the same as the area in China where ginseng grew, he wondered if some might grow in his vicinity. When he showed a drawing of the ginseng plant to the Indians, they immediately took him to a similar plant nearby, which was American ginseng, Panax quinquefo-lium, growing wild in the eastern half of North America. The Indians used it in ways somewhat different to those of the Chinese: as a tonic, for healing wounds, as a headache cure, to soothe eyes and muscular cramps, and to cure croup in children. Nowadays, American ginseng, together with other ginseng species (Japanese ginseng, P. japonicus; Himalayan ginseng, P. pseudoginseng; and San-chi ginseng, P. notoginseng) are sold widely in the United States and Europe, and are prescribed for similar medical conditions as the Korean ginseng.

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