Nature Bulletin No. 567-A May 17, 1975
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
The wild ginseng plant and the old-time woodsmen who hunted it for its
valuable roots are both practically extinct. Nowadays, most people have
never heard the word ginseng; much less are they likely to recognize the
plant or know anything of its history. Many of those former ginseng
hunters were also trappers. They trapped fur-bearing animals in late fall
and winter when the quality of fur was at its best. Then, in summer and
early autumn, they used their outdoor skills to find and dig ginseng root
for the drug market. The two occupations naturally went together. Fur
buyers, such as the old American Fur Company founded by John Jacob
Astor, also bought and sold ginseng root.
The American ginseng trade was started in 1711 when a Jesuit
Missionary among the Iroquois Indians in Canada received a letter from
another French missionary in China. In it were careful drawings and the
description of a plant whose roots were regarded as a magic cure for all
sorts of human ailments, both mental and physical. He said the Chinese
would pay almost anything for it, that it was very scarce, and was a
monopoly of the emperor for whom it was cultivated in closely guarded
gardens. They called it "jin-chen, " meaning "shaped-like-a-man, "
because branched roots resembling a human form were supposed to be
specially effective. In Canada the Indians soon found a ginseng closely
resembling the Asiatic species and the first shipment of its dried roots
were sent to China in 1716.
The ginseng sends up a new stem each year from a perennial
underground rootstock. This stem bears three palmately compound
leaves, each with five irregularly notched leaflets -- three larger leaflets
and two smaller ones -- something like the leaf of a buckeye tree. In the
center, a globular cluster of 6 to 20 small yellowish-green flowers
appear in midsummer, followed in autumn by half-inch ruby-red
berries. The root enlarges with age and each year's stem adds a new scar
making it possible to read its age. At 5 years, roots are the size of a little
finger. One especially large root showing 28 scars weighed 12 ounces
when fresh. Drying shrinks roots to 113 or 1/4 of their fresh weight.
Now extremely scarce, the plant is still native in rich woodlands from
Quebec and Minnesota south to Arkansas and Georgia. It prefers north
slopes, shaded ravines, and is often associated with sugar maple,
basswood and walnut trees. A few plants still grow in our forest
preserves but their location is a carefully guarded secret.
Ginseng is one of the very few drug plants exported from the United
States, as well as one of the most costly. Until about 1900 the price
received by American "seng" hunters and shippers varied from roughly
50 cents to 4 dollars a pound for the dried root. Since then it has risen
to an all-time high of $24 in 1957. The entire American crop, about
100, 000 pounds annually, is shipped to wholesalers in Hong Kong who
distribute it in the Orient. The cost to the Chinese consumer is
multiplied many times, often more than its weight in gold -- as much as
$400 an ounce for a forked root suggesting a human figure.
Ginseng is now grown in carefully tended and artificially shaded
gardens by a few growers. The largest are Fromm Brothers of
Hamburg, Wisconsin, who have 100 acres under cultivation. After
planting the seed, from 5 to 7 years are required to produce a
marketable root. At present the U. S. Pharmacopoeia says it has no
medicinal value but we Americans should not laugh at the Chinese.
We swallow billions of pills each year for reasons equally silly.
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Update: June 2012