American Ginseng's Significance
Members of the taxonomic grouping (the ‘genus’), Panax, have a long and interesting history of medicinal usage both in Asia, and among North American Native Americans. The connection forged in the 1700’s between North American ginseng and Asia has supported rural economies for over three centuries. Only more recently has ginseng’s ecological role in forest communities begun to be studied and understood.
Ginseng has been variously described as a ‘panacea’ (hence the genus name, Panax), or an ‘adaptogen’ (medicinals that adaptively treat what the body ‘needs’). The scientific evidence for these claims is abundant, of highly variable quality, and not universally accepted in western medicine. Nevertheless, 2,000 year-old beliefs that are deeply rooted in traditional Asian medicinal practices have resulted in millions of users and believers. But why not use cultivated roots in traditional medicine? Again, this is more a matter of belief than science. Wild ginseng is believed to be more powerful and effective than cultivated roots, and therefore commands 10-fold or more higher prices on the open market. The twisted, wrinkled, old and sometimes human-formed roots are thought to be a sign of potency.
Ginseng tea, leaf and root.
Photo Credit: batcavebotanicals, 2016
Since the 1700's, the continuous North American ginseng trade has supported rural harvesters with much needed extra money through many economic hard times. The ginseng trade has represented a sort of seasonal economic backstop when unemployment rises for tens of thousands of rural folk. But more than this, ginseng is one important piece of the natural cycle of harvest that binds people to their surrounding landscape. Self-trained naturalists learn from and benefit from the annual cycles of harvest that include everything from ramps to morel mushrooms, to squirrels, turkeys and deer. For rural residents of the eastern deciduous forest, ecosystem services such as these have always been the glue that allow them to see the forest for more than the trees.
Ethically harvested fresh American ginseng roots.
Photo Credit: batcavebotanicals, 2015
Wild American ginseng is one of hundreds of common native understory plants that support all life in the forest. Foliage, fruits and seeds are consumed by everything from insects to birds to herbivorous browsers, which in turn, support predators. The multi-layered natural community literally relies upon the healthy understory for its vitality. Obviously, trees are important here too, but the understory is more diverse than the trees. The ecosystem services provided by the forest rely on all the plants at the base of the ecosystem.
American ginseng berries, ripening.
Photo Credit: batcavebotanicals, 2017