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The History of Ginseng

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius, L.) is a perennial herb native to the deciduous forests of the eastern United States. Wild ginseng once thrived along most of the nation's eastern seaboard, from Maine to Alabama and west to Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. It still grows wild, but it was over-harvested in the mid-1970s and was subsequently defined as an endangered species. Currently, 18 states issue licenses to export it. In Wisconsin and several other states where ginseng is cultivated, a permit is not required to export artificially propagated ginseng.

Ginseng was one of the earliest marketable herbs to be harvested in this country. Wild ginseng was one of Minnesota's first major exports. In 1860, more than 120 tons of dried ginseng roots were shipped from the state to China. American ginseng is similar to Asian ginseng, Panax ginseng, L., which grows wild in Northern Manchuria and has been harvested there for thousands of years.

Ginseng is prized in the Orient for its purported curative properties. Based on an ancient Chinese legend, early emperors proclaimed it a panacea to be ingested or used in lotions and soaps. The genus name, Panax, is derived from the Greek "panakeia," which means universal remedy. The term "ginseng" is derived from the Chinese term "jen-shen," which means "in the image of a man." Ginseng roots shaped like the human body are considered highly desirable. In particular, old roots (some may be nearly a century old) are prized because their longevity is claimed to be transferred to the person who consumes them.

Ginseng root is reputed to lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels, protect against stress, enhance strength and promote relaxation. Koreans have fed ginseng to race horses to enhance their performance on the track. Although some European and Asian studies appear to support some of these claims, American researchers remain skeptical. Ginseng is not a drug and should not be taken as such. It is classified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a "generally recognized safe food" (GRAS).

Ginseng became a domesticated crop in the late 1800s. Attempts to produce the crop in Wisconsin in the late 1870s failed due to disease. In 1904, the four Fromm brothers from the Wisconsin township of Hamburg, near Wausau, transplanted 100 wild ginseng plants from nearby forests onto a plot of their land and carefully duplicated the natural growth conditions. The perseverance of these early ginseng growers and the ideal growth conditions in Marathon County have made it the ginseng capital of the United States, producing approximately 10% of the world's supply of ginseng root. More than 90% of the cultivated ginseng grown in the United States is grown in Wisconsin, and 90 to 95% of Wisconsin-grown ginseng is produced in Marathon County.

It is estimated that Wisconsin grew 3,000 to 5,000 acres of ginseng in 1990, and sales of the root earned almost $70 million for farmers in Marathon County. Most of Wisconsin's ginseng growers cultivate no more than one acre of the crop annually. Most of the nation's ginseng crop is exported to Hong Kong, where it enters duty-free. Much is then redistributed to other locations in the Far East.

Ginseng can be a profitable crop, but it requires an enormous commitment of time, money and labor for successful commercial production. Ginseng beds in Wisconsin are usually cultivated for three years before harvest, unless disease problems mandate earlier harvest.