Ginseng, the Divine Root:
The Curious History of the Plant That Captivated the World
by David A. Taylor
Let's see, what do I know about ginseng?
It's a supposed herbal panacea, from China (or was that
Korea?). It began invading New Age consciousness and health
food stores around the time of Woodstock. It has quite
a nasty, bitter taste. Oh, and didn't some clever American
farmers recently start growing ginseng and selling it back
to the Chinese? Clearly what I knew was not a lot, and
after reading Ginseng, the Divine Root, I realized
half of that was completely wrong. Two facts underpin David
A. Taylor's fascinating book: ginseng has been growing
in North America for 70 million years; and North Americans
have been selling ginseng to the Chinese for almost 300
by Chinese as a tonic for thousands of years, ginseng
had been pushed towards extinction in China when half
way around the globe a Jesuit missionary made a fortuitous
discovery. In Quebec Joseph-François Lafitau was ministering
to Mohawk converts, but in that great theology/science
duality so characteristic of his order, he was also
intently studying the Iroquois. While there he happened
on an article by a fellow French missionary who had
travelled extensively in China. Lafitau was intrigued.
The article described ginseng, its use and value in
Chinese medicine. He then, rather remarkably, set out
to see if he could find the plant locally. In 1716
after only three months of searching, Lafitau with
the help of the Mohawk, had identified Panax quinquefolium, American
ginseng, virtually identical to Asian ginseng. The
root had long been used medicinally by the Mohawk and
other Native Americans but never with the same passion
as the Chinese.
So began a rush for 'forest
gold' as thousands in Canada combed the woodlands for
wild roots, all destined for a lucrative market on the
far edges of the Pacific Ocean. As ginseng fever spread,
even Daniel Boone was later involved in the trade down
in West Virginia. Ginseng, writes the author, became
the United States' first major export to China.
Taylor weaves together the many threads
of the ginseng story, a tale that straddles two continents
with vastly contrasting cultures. This is reflected, in
the differing ways ginseng is valued and used in each. "In
Chinese medicine," writes the author, "it's an
all-purpose tonic, often blended with more toxic herbs
to mellow their effects. In Western medicine it's gaining
converts for relieving severe fatigue."
The book reads like an adventure as Taylor
follows the American ginseng trail throughout one season,
meeting farmers, traders, and various experts, even joining
a ranger on a night stakeout in a national park trying
to nab poachers of wild ginseng. The story is perhaps most
interesting when Taylor joins diggers in the 'hunt' for
the root in Appalachia. Wild ginseng is such an idiosyncratic
plant that the search for it is considered more akin to
hunting – it can, for instance remain dormant underground
for several years, waiting for the right conditions before
sending up a new shoot. Some diggers claim the plant can
camouflage itself or even move! What is more certain is
that its relative scarcity these days only adds to the
challenge of finding it, and no doubt, to its market value.
It was not until the Seventies,
more than 250 years after Lafitau identified the plant
that ginseng started to become widely known in the United
States. Now Americans spend more than $100 million annually
on products listing it as an ingredient.
There are three types of
ginseng (in descending order of value): wild, wild simulated,
and cultivated. Such is the value of ginseng that 'ginsengers'
protect their plants like gold prospectors defend a claim.
Even cultivated ginseng, the most common form, is difficult
to work with and requires six to eight years to reach
the size desired by Asian markets. Wisconsin-grown ginseng
is now considered the world's best, and fetches a correspondingly
high price. Wisconsin is also the leading exporter.
As quickly as the newer
markets for ginseng are growing, China will likely remain
the primary market, and not just because of China's huge
population and expanding economy. In the West, for every
ginseng buff there is a cynic, and five others who couldn't
care less. In China by contrast, so strong is the underlying
traditional belief in the restorative powers of ginseng
that just about everyone is at least an occasional user.
The book is aimed at the general reader,
but industry types might also learn a thing or two given
the secretive nature of the business Taylor describes.
Readers who are not utter ginseng devotees might find the
middle section of Ginseng a little slow, but most
of us will be swept through anyway by Taylor's enthusiasm.
One chapter though, Served by the Finest Chefs,
focusing on ginseng and food, somewhat misses its mark
because the central figure, celebrity chef Ming Tsai unlike
the other major characters in the book, is not strongly
connected to ginseng, at least professionally. He does
not cook with the root in his own restaurant, and is surprisingly,
unaware of American ginseng.
winds up this highly
engrossing trawl through the history and business of
Hong Kong and China, meeting with ginseng merchants and
visiting specialist markets. We learn, somewhat fittingly
for the times, that in China both Asian and American
ginseng is now cultivated using modern American methods.
That is good news for consumers, but the lasting allure
placed the wild root under threat in America, as well
to an interview with
(中文) edition available in Taiwan