By Andrew Poitras
Ginseng is a perennial, herbaceous plant, belonging to the genus Panax. The wild variety (in traditional Chinese, referred to as 野山參 or Wild Mountain Root), closely resembles its cultivated counterpart species: American Ginseng, or Panax Quinquefolius, which is native to eastern North America, and the Korean species P. ginseng and South Chinese species P. notoginseng (1). Panax Ginseng represents not only an important component of American history, but a noticeable staple in the global evolution of traditional herbal medicine, upon the gradual discovery of its medicinal and supplemental properties (2). Ginseng is highly treasured, and the wild variety has, in recent years, become an increasingly rare species to be found in the natural environment.
Cultivated species of Panax Ginseng typically tend to grow up to 20 inches of height, and generally prevail in rich, damp soils found in the temperate climates which typically constitute that of the northeast United States (5). Though the wild variety of ginseng can take several years to reach maturity, its cultivated counterparts mature much faster, and are usually more accessible and inexpensive than the wild type given their availability (2). Ginseng grown in natural, wooded areas and under the typically stressful soil conditions of a non-homogenized swath will generally yield a plant whose gnarled roots and physical composition most closely resemble the true wild variety of the plant.
History and Cultivation
Native Ginseng had been present in northeastern US and Canada for centuries, long before European emigration began around 1500 AD, and colonial settlements had formed by the early 1600s (2). Quinquefolius’ natural growth range once extended bountifully throughout the US, extending as far west as Minnesota, and as far south as northern Alabama, though in the mid-1800s it grew most abundantly in the northeast. In 1716, a description of the plant’s pharmacological and medicinal properties, as well as its basic physiology and appearance, was suggested to have first been relayed to a French missionary stationed with an Iroquois tribe, and within a few years the plant became a highly demanded commodity (2). By 1750, the plant was discovered plentifully in western New England states. Over the course of the following century, market demand began to grow throughout Canada and northeastern US settlements, and the herb rapidly became a significant component of local commerce (2).
By the mid-1800s however, the export trade began to boom, and U.S. supply of wild ginseng began to decline rapidly with the expansion of national economic growth and an increasing settler population. This resulted in an expanding market demand for its cultivation, while gatherers found less and less native stores of the plant in the western portion of the US, though as western settlement continued it was found with abundance in western states as far as Wisconsin (9). By the late 1800s the plant began to fall under acts of preservation with varying levels of stringency, first in Virginia, then Canada(25). These regulations founded the less stringent ones that resolved to better protect the plant in the following years (25).
Attempts to cultivate were initially quelled by the somewhat specific growing conditions by which ginseng thrives, whose precise balance of shade, soil fertility, and bedding are difficult to mimic (2). Though they require little attention to develop once established, transplanting wild roots had to be conducted carefully, and even when obtained, seeds are infertile if dried and must remain fresh (2). Plots were not at first met with much success in the US mainly for the reason that ginseng cannot survive in direct sunlight, as it will shrivel without sufficient shade. Eventually, techniques to cultivate were developed and the more committed growers were successful (2).
Uses and Health Effects
Both in China and in the US, the plant was highly valued for its medicinal properties. Its value in China was attributed to its invigorating and stimulating properties, and upon its discovery in the U.S. the plant was quickly prized as a miracle herb (2). Ginseng does indeed stimulate immune activity, and it passively alters the body’s metabolism rate of lipids and carbohydrates (7). It also suppresses cholesterogenesis (the production of cholesterol by the body) and reduces low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels in the blood (6). Studies have found its consumption to be associated with improving cognitive function and stamina. Though primarily its effects are positive, the herb also exhibits a variety of adverse side effects in some cases, particularly when consumed in excess, which include experiences of insomnia, migraines, and metabolic stress, though these are usually in extreme cases (20).
Physically there are few differences between Chinese and American ginseng. American ginseng strains tend to differ biochemically in that their constitution tends to house Pseudoginsenoside F11, a natural compound in the family of Triterpenoids, whose health effects have not been fully explored as they are difficult to characterize (11). A compound found abundantly in the Chinese but not the American variety is ginsenoside Rf – a steroid glycoside, popularly used as a Nootropic to improve cognitive brain function in the areas of memory, motivation, and creativity (13). The presence or absence of these compounds is perhaps the only significant and reliable way to differentiate the two strains (13).
Global Market and Current Cultivation
Though the statistics behind global distribution and production of ginseng around the world vary largely by country, approximations show that the leading producers are among four countries: China, South Korea, United States, and Canada, with China producing more than half of the world’s total amount cultivated within the last 20 years (1). Total global production is divided almost exclusively between these countries, and it has accounted for around 80,000 tons of fresh ginseng distributed within the past two decades (1).
The American strain of Panax Quinquefolius is commonly exported in mass quantities to China, as it resembles more closely the highly desired and elusive wild variety craved for its extraordinary health-boosting properties (15). Though dependent on where it is grown, the herb is typically very expensive per pound (in 1995, $20/lb, though today it is nearer to $50/lb), though not nearly as much as the wild variety whose price in 1995 reached nearly $470/lb and has since grown to range from $500-800/lb in the US (16). Both species are typically in far higher demand in China (14).
True wild variety ginseng is incredibly difficult to relocate and cultivate, though methods to recreate the wild conditions through ‘wild-simulated cultivation’ are common to grow ginseng in this manner. By replicating the exact soil moisture, temperature range, and shade canopy characteristic of successful wild type growth, wild-simulation can be attained (23). Though catering to these conditions is comprehensive and can be quite expensive to maintain, market values for these wild-simulated grown varieties run very close to that of the genuine wild type, which again hover much higher than that of cultivated ginseng and generally reward the intensive care required (16).
Current Status and Protection
Over the past decades, the mass cultivation of Panax notoginseng has in many cases lead to the strain losing its genetic diversity through decreased nucleotide variation and ultimately caused the species to become biotically homogenized (17). Because each plant is genetically identical, its physical constitution to pest resistance and disease immunity may be negatively affected, even if it is able to flourish initially under various growing conditions to start. This aspect might not appear overly problematic on an individual level—however, decreases in immunity and desiccation resistance can represent a danger for the livelihood of the species as a whole, as plant herd immunity to diseases is defined on a community level as more effective among populations with varying immunity and genetic diversity (18).
Both wild and cultivated strains of ginseng are susceptible to root rot, a fungal infection caused by inadequate water drainage in damp soil (22). Phytophthora cactorum and blight are examples of fungal infections which are a cause for concern for growers, as a disease outbreak can spread rapidly, threatening entire crops with close proximity to each other.
Wild ginseng is currently classified as threatened in the US. To ensure its protection, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and has listed it in Appendix II under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a national protective act (10). Despite protections, wild harvest is still partially allowed in certain states, as long as it follows state conservation regulations. For instance, Virginia’s conservation regulation for ginseng requires criteria that plants which are under 5 years of age and express certain physiological limitations are not to be harvested (3).
In recent years, and as a result of large-scale and global environmental fluctuations in temperature, flora species are beginning to experience the effects of a changing environment that is greatly influencing their growth, reproductive cycles, and basic survival (27, 28). Even among the most resilient plants, extreme environmental shifts pose risks of critical species loss and threaten plant diversity and immunity (26). Ginseng is no exception to having sensibility to these changes, and its strict conditional needs make it a primary candidate for the effects of climate change.
As one of many important species throughout the globe that is firmly lodged in ecosystem health as well as cultural significance, it is of strong importance that a shift be made toward changing the dangerous direction by which the world appears to be moving in, to preserve and protect fragile species like Wild Ginseng (28). One of the more effective ways to relate the importance of concerning issues such as these is to provide accurate and accessible information for the public (30). Effective environmental policy has historically been established when supported by an informed majority (29), and steps toward progressive action of this nature will ultimately shape the livelihood of countless species throughout the globe.
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