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Ginseng Varieties and Glossary

Ginseng is a deciduous perennial herb with adaptogenic properties. The root lives for many years, even though the stem and foliage die back to ground level at the end of each growing season. An ancient species first identified as growing when the continents were connected, Ginseng today is found in two forms, Panax ginseng and Panax quinquefolium. These are two cousin plants which vary primarily due to climatic and growing conditions. They both contain active ingredients called ginsenosides.

Oriental ginseng (Panax ginseng): native to eastern Asia, primarily China and Korea. It was found in the wild abundantly centuries ago. Because of its popularity, it was dug almost to extinction. Today it is commonly available as a cultivated plant.

Wild Oriental ginseng: the stuff that has set emperors and dynasties against each other. In the year 221 BC the emperor Shoangte sent more than 3,000 foot soldiers to find and bring back ginseng. It is not practical to consider it as a modern medicinal herb due to its rarity and cost (as much as $20,000 per ounce when available).

Cultivated Oriental ginseng: the most common type of ginseng found. Almost all of the Oriental ginseng exported to America is cultivated. It is relatively inexpensive and is grown using intensive cultivation.

White ginseng: the name given to the natural ginseng root which has not undergone any processing. It is the natural color of the ginseng root when harvested and thoroughly washed. The root, when dried, takes on a tan color.

Red ginseng is ginseng that has been processed using steam and heat to preserve it. The roots that are thus processed turn a red color. In order to withstand the heat, superior and older roots must be used, hence the claim of red ginseng being more potent than white.

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium): the botanical cousin to Panax ginseng and is indigenous primarily to the Appalachian mountain region of North America. It can be found growing wild in forests and cultivated in plantations in the U.S. and Canada.

Wild American ginseng: the ginseng plant in its natural form. Wild American ginseng grows generally in shaded hardwood forests and can live to be almost a century old, although the average plant grows to be about 8-15 years old. The plant is listed as a threatened species. The wild plant is regularly harvested by "shang diggers" under controls set forth by the various state and provincial governments.

Woods-grown American ginseng: grown in the forest where the soil has been mounded up to increase the yield of the crop. Most woods-grown ginseng is grown organically, and reaches 6-8 years old.

Cultivated American ginseng: the most common type of American ginseng found. It is grown under artificial shade in fields and yields a crop in approximately 3-4 years. Wisconsin and Canada are the leading growers of cultivated ginseng, where it is a large cash crop which uses modern farming technology.

Other Species That Are Called "Ginseng"

Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticocus): is often labeled as ginseng for marketing purposes. It is not a true ginseng, but is a related plant also with adaptogenic properties. Siberian ginseng has more of the stimulating qualities of ginseng without ginseng's balancing and tonic effects. It is also relatively inexpensive compared to real ginseng.

Wild red American (desert) ginseng: is another impostor. It is a native American plant called Canaigre or Rumex that can be toxic and dangerous when used improperly.

Other Ginseng Terms

Adaptogen: is a term that applies to herbs that maintain health by increasing the body's ability to adapt to environmental and internal stress. Adaptogens generally work by strengthening the immune system, nervous system and/or glandular systems.

Ginsenosides: are the active ingredients of the ginseng plant. They are dammarane-type triterpenoidal glycosides, which have been identified as the main substance that gives ginseng its unique properties. According to modern research, ginsenosides are found in different proportions depending on where and how the ginseng is grown and the quality of the ginseng in the ginseng products. Some tend to be stimulating (Yang according to the Chinese), and some relaxing or cooling (Yin). This supports many traditions that certain types of ginseng are better than others for different segments of the population with different imbalances and needs. Oriental cultivated ginseng tends to contain higher proportions of the heating (Yang) ginsenosides, preferred by those seeking stimulation for performance. Wild American ginseng contains all known ginsenosides, preferred by athletes and older men for stimulation of the hormonal system. American woods-grown or cultivated ginseng tends to contain higher proportions of the cooling (Yin) ginsenosides, preferred for stress related use in general and for hormornal balance by women.

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