Ginseng refers to several species of plants in the genus Panax, family Araliaceae. Ginseng is a perennial, herbaceous plant, with compound leaves that grow from a starchy root. The natural habitat of ginseng is the understory of mature angiosperm forest in the temperate zones of east Asia and eastern North America.
The root of ginseng is highly valued as having many therapeutic properties by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, who regard it as a tonic, stimulant, aphrodisiac, and cure for some diseases. Oriental ginseng (Panax ginseng) is the original ginseng upon which this medicinal usage was based. Because of the insatiable demand for its roots, this Asian species has been overharvested from its natural habitat of hardwood forest in eastern Asia, and is now endangered in the wild. Although Oriental ginseng is now cultivated as a medicinal crop, it is widely believed that wild plants are of much better medicinal quality than cultivated ginseng. Consequently, virtually any wild ginseng plants that are found are harvested, because they are so valuable.
Soon after the colonization by the French of parts of eastern North America in the sixteenth century, it was realized that there was a large and profitable market in China for the roots of American ginseng (Panax quinquifolium), which grew abundantly in the temperate angiosperm forests of that region. These wild plants were initially collected in southern Quebec, and then anywhere else that ginseng could be found. For a while, ginseng root was one of the most important commodities being exported from North America. Inevitably, however, the once abundant natural resource of wild ginseng was quickly exhausted, and today these plants are extremely rare in the wild in North America. American ginseng is now considered an endangered species in the wild. Another, much smaller species known as dwarf ginseng (P. trifolium) was not over-collected, and is more common.
An agricultural system has been developed for the cultivation of ginseng, and it is now grown as a valuable cash crop in various places in North America. The plants are started from seed, which are collected from mature plants and stored in moist sand for one year, so that they will scarify and be capable of germinating. It can take as long as five to seven years for cultivated ginseng plants to reach their prime maturity for harvesting. However, the plants are sometimes harvested when smaller, and less valuable, because of the risk that a longer period of growth might allow a fungal infection to develop. Such an infection can ruin an entire crop, and devastate the result of years of patient work and investment. Agricultural ginseng is grown under a shading, plastic or wood-lattice canopy, because this species is a plant of the forest understory and does not tolerate full sunlight.
Once harvested, the largest, best-quality ginseng roots are dried, and are mostly exported to China, Korea, and Japan to be sold in traditional-medicine stores. Customers purchase their carefully selected roots, and then watch as the ginseng is prepared. Poorer-quality, thinner, cracked roots may b processed into ginseng tea and other bulk preparations.
Moramarco, J. The Complete Ginseng Handbook: A Practical Guide for Energy, Health, and Longevity. NTC/Contemporary Publishing, 1998.