GINSENG, IN USE FOR MORE THAN 2,000 YEARS IN CHINA, HAS BEEN PRIZED CASH CROP FOR MOUNTAIN RESIDENTS
By Dallas Bogan
Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. This
article was published in the LaFollette Press.
Sometime ago I was conversing with a Coolidge resident, Wayne Cox, and the subject moved to the medicinal root, ginseng, or as most locals call it, "sang." Wayne has been hunting and finding it for years. He tried to explain to me what it looked like, but I would possibly have to see it for myself.
After researching the subject I found that it is native to China, although a closely related species, American ginseng, occurs in eastern North America and is sometimes substituted for the Chinese variety.
Before we extract some history on ginseng, we shall get into the general use of "sang" involving the early settlers pf Tennessee. Some acts of superstition, combined with Indian tradition, led to a strangely precise form of medicine. One recipe for general aches and pains involving the pioneers consisted of star root, sourwood, rosemary, sawdust, anvil dust, water, and vinegar. A somewhat bad memory required a mixture of "sticky" tea made of cocklebur and jimsonweed.
These settlers used ginseng sparingly, for it brought a high price when sold to herb dealers for shipment to China. The main problem for the pioneers lay in locating the five-leaved plant, which grew in the most secluded, damp coves of the Smokies and beyond. Sometimes several family members would wait until summer or early fall, then go out on extended "sanging" expeditions.
Sometimes the search proved to be quite impossible. During some seasons, the plant might not appear at all. When it did, its leaves yellowed and its berries reddened for only a few days. But when a healthy "sang" plant was finally found, and its long root carefully cleaned and dried, it could yield a great financial reward.
Although the five year old white root was more common, a red-rooted plant needed a full decade to mature and was therefore more highly prized. Greed often led to reckless destruction of the beds, with no seed plants for future harvests. Ginseng was almost impossible to cultivate.
Ginseng hunting became a dangerous business. Although Daniel Boone dug it and traded for it, later gatherers were sometimes killed over it. One large Philadelphia dealer who came into Cataloochee (located in the Smokies) in the mid-1800's was murdered and robbed. Anyone trying to grow it, even if he were successful, found that he would have to guard the plants like water in the desert. The rare, prized ginseng became a symbol for many in the mountains of all that was unique, so freely destroyed, and eventually irreplaceable.
Ginseng has been used for more than 2,000 years in China, where the earliest written description of its use appeared in a medical book written before 100 A.D. At that time it was recommended for calming down the spirit, reducing the emotion, bringing agitation to an end, removing harmful influence, lightening the eyes, enlightening the mind, and increasing wisdom.
It was predicted in 1714 that "any European who understands pharmacy" would be able to study its chemistry and adapt to it as an exceptional medicine. European science still has not been able to explain why the Chinese prize it so highly. The Chinese people conclude that it increases strength, promotes life and appetite, overcomes weakness and impotence. American ginseng is more valued to Asians because it is sweeter tasting.
Regardless of species, the "root" of the plant is used. It should be collected in autumn from a plant five or six years old. Ginseng root is considered "fresh" when at least six years old. "White" ginseng root is prepared for by simple drying, while "red" ginseng root is prepared by steaming first prior to drying. These processing techniques most assuredly alter the composition of the final product.
Sometimes ginseng draws prices as high as $500 per root, and so, it is little wonder that hunting this rare root has become more and more popular in the United States. Ginseng in China is still considered a general tonic.