Ginseng herb comes from the fleshy roots of perennial slow-growing plants belonging to 11 different species and two different genera. There are three popular varieties—Asian, American, and Siberian.
Asian or Korean ginseng herb is the oldest. The most famous and commonly found ginseng comes from Panax ginseng. American ginseng comes from Panax quinquefolius. Siberian ginseng is from a different genus: Eleutherococcus senticosus. Korean ginseng comes from Panax ginseng.
Three more species of the Panax genus are used in traditional medicine: Panax vietnamensis (Vietnamese ginseng), Panax japonicas (Japanese ginseng), and Panax notoginseng (Pseudoginseng). Both Panax and Eleutherococcus species belong to the Araliaceae family.
Outside of this family, but still called ginseng, are the Malaysian ginseng (Eurycoma longifolia), Peruvian ginseng (Lepidium meyenii), Southern ginseng (Gynostemma pentaphyllum), Brazilian ginseng (Pfaffia paniculata), Kerala ginseng (Trichopus zeylanicus), Thai ginseng (Kaempferia parviflora), Nam ginseng (Dracena angustifolia), and Ashwagandha or Indian ginseng (Withania somnifera). A cheap substitute for Panax ginseng comes from Codonopsis pilosula.
Panax ginseng is cultivated in the Manchurian mountain region of China where it was discovered over 5,000 years ago. Probably, ginseng was used as food until it became known for its strength-giving and rejuvenating properties also.
The benefits of ginseng were first documented at the time of the Liang Dynasty (220-589 AD). Ginseng is an ingredient in an entire spectrum of traditional Chinese medicine herbal medicines. It is also used in soaps, lotions, and creams.
Ginseng herb was popular with Chinese emperors, who paid for it in gold. Overexploitation led to the near disappearance of the plant. On the back of this, an ancient trade in ginseng with Korea began from the 3rd century AD. The Silk Road was a popular route for this trade between China and the rest of the trading world.
In America, Native American tribes like the Iroquois, Menomonee, Cherokee, and the Creeks all valued the herb for its curative powers, but cultivation of ginseng in the US began in 20th century only. Widespread cultivation has helped save the species from imminent extinction.
Now you know that ginseng does not belong to a single species, let us look at the medicinal properties of this group of plants. Most scientific studies focus on Panax ginseng and, to a limited extent, Ashwagandha or Indian ginseng. It is because the former is extensively used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda. These two are the most widely used herbal medicine systems.
Traditionally, ginseng is regarded as both a physical and mental restorant. It is said to improve the cognitive ability of patients, and improve their quality of life and behavior. Ginsenoides and other constituents in ginseng possess immunosuppressive properties.
It is also said to be an aphrodisiac. Other medicinal properties include improving concentration, memory, physical efficiency, and athletic endurance.
In Western medicine, Panax ginseng is simulative, while in traditional Chinese medicine is used to induce calm. It is also used to treat ailments related to heart and blood vessels, diabetes, etc.
There is so much to know about the various types of ginseng. Each of these herbs is used in various herbal combinations to treat various ailments.
References for further reading:
Asian Herbs and their wondrous health-giving properties
Holy Herbs: Modern Connections to Ancient Plants