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Getting to the Root of Ginseng

Questions about the herb's health benefits haven't cooled the red-hot market in wild American ginseng

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The Appalachian forests of southern West Virginia yieldall manner of earthly delights: the blush of a rare orchid in the leaf litter, theearthy fragrance of a truffle. But as George Albright leads me up yet anotherrise and sweat collects on my brow, I fear we may be on a fool’s errand. Weseek something in these woods that’s rarer and more valuable than any of theabove: wild American ginseng root.

Because wild ginseng is so valuable— and because poachers have turned it into something of an endangered species— Albright has sworn me to secrecy about where we are, not that I have thevaguest notion anyway. The former mine engineer has walked these woodsall his life, but I’m lost minutes after we crest the first ridge behind his house.

Across the valley at our backs, the sound of a coal-laden freight trainechoes in the morning air. The forest of poplar, beech and hickory is deep greenfrom weeks of heavy rains. Several plants in these woods resemble ginseng,so our task is not easy. Albright stops for a moment, leans over and pulls astringy green plant from the soft earth. He wipes the severed root against mywrist, and little scarlet drops spread across it. “That’s bloodroot,” he says.“When you find this growing, you know the soil’s ideal for ginseng.” Aswe walk on, Albright says that “sang,” as ginseng is known here, also likes theheavy shade we’re in.

Sang, or Panax quinquefolius, is theAmerican version of Asian ginseng (P. ginseng), which the Chinese have usedto treat a wide variety of ills for several thousand years. In Chinese medicine,Asian ginseng is considered “hot” (a mild stimulant), while its Americancousin is “cool” (a calming tonic). Both contain compounds known as ginsenosides,but in different proportions.

Over the past decade, the price of domesticatedginseng, which is easily cultivated, has plunged to about $15 apound while the price of the wild variety— West Virginia is one of the nation’sleading exporters—has soared, commanding up to $500 a dried pound.“A small bulbous root is what the Chinese look for, a shape that occurs onlyin the wild,” says Fred Hays, director of the West Virginia-based Center for SustainableResources, a nonprofit organization that helps farmers grow ginsengand other native plants. (A gnarly approximation of the human body,achieved only by wild varieties, gives ginseng more therapeutic properties, accordingto traditional Chinese medicine.) Some people also believe that wildroots contain higher concentrations of ginsenosides than farmed varieties.

As we walk through the woods, Albright points out more good ginsenghabitat: deep-brown crumbly soil in which other indicator plants—spicebush,goldenseal and poplar—are growing.Then he kneels once more. “Here,”he whispers, pointing to a small, slender stem that branches into four smallerstems about six inches above the soil.

It’s a “four-prong,” a fine ginsengspecimen. Like poison oak, it has clusters of leaves and is not quite a foothigh. The four prongs signal that this plant is at least 4 years old.

Albright takes the “sanging hoe” and scrapes the earth gently on either side ofthe delicate stem to keep the fragile root hairs intact. The six-inch root is oddlytwisted and bent. It will soon embark on a journey of thousands of miles. U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service inspectors may count its rings to make sure it is oldenough before it ends up in a shop in Chungking, China, or San Francisco’sChinatown. By then, it will command several hundred dollars.

Albright grins, not only because he’s found the root but also because heplanted its seed eight years ago. Wild sang does grow around here, but thisparticular plant represents his first efforts in the hottest sector of the markettoday: simulated wild ginseng. Albright says he must harvest this patch soon.Poachers stalk his forest, and, he confides, “somebody already knows thatit’s here.” Some growers are going hightech, using handheld GPS receivers tomark ginseng patches, thus avoiding using the flags or paint marks on treesthat might attract poachers’ interest.

Raw ginseng tastes like a bitterradish, and I can do without it. I’ve never felt the herb’s restorative powers,either, whether it was raw, pickled, dried or powdered. Others certainlyhave—or think they have. In 1713, Pierre Jartoux, a Jesuit missionary in China,wrote in a letter that after eating ginseng, “I found my Pulse much fullerand quicker, I had an Appetite, and found myself much more vigorous.”Four days later, so tired he could hardly stay in his saddle, he chewed somemore. After an hour, he reported feeling like a new man. In his letter, almostas an afterthought, he noted that ginseng might well grow in similar environments,such as Canada.

By chance, Jartoux’s letter came to the attention of a Jesuit brother visitingQuebec. An amateur medical botanist, Joseph Francois Lafitau soon after discovereda Canadian specimen that matched the plant in Jartoux’s drawing.A short time later, Canadian suppliersbegan shipping tons of it to China, resultingin overharvesting within a fewdecades. The Chinese began looking tothe South for an alternate source.

They found it in southern Appalachia,where the Cherokee were alreadyusing ginseng medicinally. TheIndians believed that it was sentient,able to make itself invisible to peopleunworthy of it. They so valued ginsengthat they dug up only one in fourplants and replenished each harvestedroot with a bead, a prayer and a newseed. When the Canadian supply faltered,the Cherokee stepped up production.By the 1750s, ports in Virginiaand South Carolina were doing a brisktrade in the Cherokee’s Appalachianginseng. Shipped to China, it eclipsedCanadian varieties.

George Washington, conducting asurvey of his lands in the autumn of1784, made note of the trend. “I metnumbers of Persons & Pack horses goingin with Ginsang; & for salt & otherarticles at the Markets below,” hewrote. The United States had no tradeagreements with the Far East or evenconsulates there, so ginseng traderswent through British middlemen.

Nonetheless, two American investorsfinanced a trading ship to sail aroundSouth Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, ahuge gamble at the time for investorand sailor alike. The investors hired avessel out of Boston, renamed it Empress of China and outfitted it to the tuneof $120,000, roughly ten times the costof a cargo ship bound for Europe.

As the copper-bottomed ship lay anchoredin New YorkHarbor, workers packed its hold with 242 casks of ginseng(nearly 30 tons), collected by theship’s surgeon in the mountainous“back park of Virginia.” In addition,every officer brought along his own privatesupply of ginseng to sell in Canton(now Guangzhou).

Nearing the most dangerous part ofthe voyage in the rocky Sunda Strait ofIndonesia, between Java and Sumatra,the Empress had the good luck to meetup with two China-trading Frenchships, which showed the Yankee greenhornsthe way. On August 24, 1784, theAmerican ship’s captain noted in his logthat he “had the honour of hoisting thefirst Continentol Flagg Ever Seen ormaid Euse of in those Seas.”

Cantonese customs officials were atfirst confused by the newcomers, whodid not come bearing gifts. But the officialsnevertheless welcomed the “FloweryFlag Devils” (the stars on their flagwere mistaken for flowers), most likelybecause the Empress contained so manycasks of the fabled root. When the shipreturned to the port of New York Citythat spring, she repaid her investorswith a handsome 25 percent profit.

Even Daniel Boone got into the ginsengtrade. In the winter of 1787 he senta bargeload of dried ginseng to marketin Philadelphia from his trading post inwhat is now central West Virginia. Onthe way, the vessel was swamped, andBoone’s ginseng ruined. Unfazed, hesent sangers back into the forest to collecta second bargeload.

In 1859, Minnesota’s Big Woods witnesseda ginseng rush. High prices forthe root helped many Minnesotansweather tough times brought on by aneconomic downturn two years earlier.In Mankato that year, a local paper reportedthat a ginseng dance wasplanned to make diggers “oblivious tomusquito bite or toil of delving for thebulbous root, whilst ‘tripping the lightfantastic toe’ to the music of the GinsengPolka.” Overharvesting soon putan end to Minnesota’s ginseng boomlet.About the same time, forward-thinkingfarmers in neighboring Wisconsin experimentedwith cultivating the root.Today, the state of Wisconsin ships ahalf-million pounds of ginseng annually,making it the leading exporter ofcultivated ginseng in the United States.

Americans themselves developed astrong appetite for ginseng only in thepast decade. In 2001, Americans spentabout $170 million on ginseng supplementsand products. Its growth in popularity has come despite the lack of scientificproof that ginseng has medicinalpowers. Last year at OregonStateUniversity,in a study of ginseng’s purportedpsychological benefits, 83 studentsparticipated in a 60-day, placebo-controlled,double-blind, randomized clinicaltrial. The researchers found that thesupplements improved the students’ energyno better than sugar pills.

Other studies, however, suggest thatginseng may have some health benefits.In 2001, the National Institutes ofHealth (NIH), citing a Vancouver study,said that “ginseng does appear to haveantioxidant properties.” Antioxidantsare found in a variety of foods, especiallyfruits and vegetables, and somelab studies suggest they may help preventcertain types of cancer. (Clinicalstudies have been inconclusive.) TheNIH’s NationalCenter for Complementaryand Alternative Medicine notesthat ginseng “may help the body’s disease-fighting and glandular systems.”

Two years ago, clinical trials conductedin Toronto, Canada, suggestedthat American ginseng can lower bloodsugar in Type II diabetics. VladimirVuksan, the study’s lead investigator,says, “We found that what matters isnot only the quantity of ginsenosidesbut the ratio of different ginsenosidesthat determines the effect on blood glucose.”Vuksan, a medical doctor at theUniversity of Toronto’s St. Michael’sHospital, cautions that these results areonly preliminary.

James Gordon, a professor of psychiatryand family medicine at GeorgetownUniversity and one of ginseng’smost respected proponents, says ginsenghas reduced fatigue and other sideeffects in his patients going throughchemotherapy. “It offers them reliefwithout the agitation caused by otherdrugs,” he says. He also believes thatthe root can reduce stress and boost theimmune system.

“I tell cancer patients they shouldconsult a qualified herbalist,” says Gordon.But he warns against over-thecounterginseng supplements. One recentstudy by ConsumerLab.com, anindependent organization that testsherbal and nutritional supplements,found that only 9 of 22 internationalginseng supplements met its criteria forquality and purity; some even containeddangerous amounts of lead andother heavy metals. “The quality andreliability of ginseng supplements is amajor problem,” says Gordon, whochairs the White House Commissionon Complementary and AlternativeMedicine Policy. “We’re interested inmaking sure that what’s in the bottle ison the bottle.”

In the United States, ginseng is secondonly to gingko as the most popularherbal supplement. It has made its wayinto a number of products, from teasand chewing gum to tinctures, snackchips and “smart” drinks, which arenutrient-enriched drinks marketed tocounter stress. Health claims for ginsengalso vary widely—and arouse suspicionfrom regulators and consumeradvocators. Wyeth Consumer Healthcare,one of the largest producers ofhealth care products in the world,claims that its Centrum Herbals Ginsengsupplement “helps maintain staminaand energy levels and may enhancephysical performance.” Marketers ofGinsana, the most popular ginseng supplement,boast that the product will“enhance physical endurance” and “improvesoxygen utilization.” Other claimsinclude increasing sexual potency, reducingproblems associated with menopauseand even improving memory.

“What is most striking about ginsengis the amount of misinformation in adsand on packages,” says nutritionistDavid Schardt at the Center for Sciencein the Public Interest (CSPI). “Panax ginseng,the most commonly available type,does not boost energy levels, mood, ormemory and doesn’t reduce stress.”

After reviewing studies over the pasttwo decades, the CSPI asked the Foodand Drug Administration three yearsago to halt phony claims. During thepast two years, the FDA has sent lettersto about half a dozen manufacturers,ordering them to limit product healthclaims due to the lack of evidence tosupport them.

Ginseng’s effectiveness, or its lackthereof, will likely not be definitivelydetermined anytime soon, partly becausethe traditional underwriters oflarge-scale clinical studies—pharmaceuticalcompanies—have little incentive totest an ancient nostrum that is alreadywidely sold and largely unpatentable. Inthe meantime, ginseng’s most therapeuticeffect may be in breathing economiclife into poor, rural communities in thesouthern Appalachian mountains.

“Ginseng is an economic answer forWest Virginia, where things like coalmining are on the way out,” says FredHays. “A small landowner can sell hislumber and wait a generation for it togrow back,” he says, or plant Christmastrees. “But in the same little square thatyou can grow one little Christmas treein eight years, you could grow $3,000 to$4,000 worth of ginseng.”

Which would make ginseng, cure-allor not, worth rooting for.

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