History of American Ginseng
The historical roots of American ginseng stretch far into the past; well before the founding of the United States and Canada. When American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius L.) was "discovered" in the eastern forests of North America, its botanical sister species, Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng), was already known as the "king of herbs" after thousands of years of use in traditional medicine in the far east. Because of its significance across the world, American ginseng has played an important part in the history of North America, and will continue to be an important botanical well into the future as modern medical research and climate change become major topics.
History of the American Ginseng Trade
Reconstruction of historical origins can be rife with speculation and outright guesswork. Not so with the history of the trade in American ginseng. The roots of that history are traced to one man – a Jesuit missionary operating in what is now Quebec – Joseph-Francois Lafitau. The year was 1715.
Lafitau had heard of a revered medicinal herb from a colleague in China, and correctly figured that ginseng might be found in North America as well. Within a few months, native Americans had led him to the sister species of Chinese ginseng here in North America. Within a few short years, Canadian-sourced American ginseng was being shipped to China.
Jesuit Priest who learned of American ginseng from Native Americans, then promoted trade of roots with China. Portrait from Culture et Communications Quebec. Archives des Jesuites au Canada.
By Louis Boudan - Publication date 1718
Mémoire presenté a son altesse royale Monseigneur le duc d Orleans, regent du royaume de France, concernant la précieuse plante du gin-seng de Tartarie by Lafitau, Joseph-François, 1681-1746
After depletion of wild populations in Quebec, harvesting shifted south to New England, then over the next several decades, it moved south and west across the Appalachians and into the Midwest. Along the way, many famous early Americans interacted with ginseng in a variety of ways, from John Jacob Astor (America’s first ‘millionaire’) to Daniel Boone (perhaps ginseng’s most famous ‘harvester’) to John Muir (who stumbled across ginseng harvesters in his thousand mile march from Indianapolis to Florida in the mid-1800’s).
In all these regions, ginseng was a source of income for unemployed or poor rural folk with an abiding connection to and knowledge of their forest surroundings. Harvest was largely unregulated, and as is the case today, done in a manner that ranged from purely exploitative and damaging, to careful and conservative, and everything in between.
Harvest rates of ginseng were higher in the past than they are today. The picture above was taken on February 28th, 1929 in Buckhannon, West Virginia. The caption reads “Mr. A. P. Russell, deceased, sits beside a 1700-pound shipment of ginseng in his general store at Buckhannon. All the fabled roots were destined to China”.
Further Reading on the History of
Johannsen, Kristin. 2006. Ginseng Dreams: The Secret World of America’s Most Valuable Plant. The University Press of Kentucky. Lexington, KY.
Taylor, David A. 2006. Ginseng, the Divine Root: The Curious History of the Plant That Captivated the World. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill, NC.
Manget, Luke. 2022. Ginseng Diggers: A History of Root and Herb Gathering in Appalachia. The University Press of Kentucky. Lexington, KY.
Gallery: History of Wild American Ginseng
(Click to enlarge images.)