Ginseng has always

mystified me. My earliest

recollections of this

peculiar herb are linked

to my grandfather who

was raised in the hills of

Tennessee where “digging

sang” was an important

source of

supplemental income.

I recall walking

through the woods

with him, digging

up the roots which

later would be

dried and sold at astounding prices. Unfortunately, I was never

able to consistently spot the distinctive pattern of leaves when

searching for this plant, which only added to the mystery.

Years later when I became aware of the Cayce readings

that prescribed ginseng, the mystery deepened even more. In

over one hundred and thirty readings Cayce extolled the therapeutic

virtues of ginseng, agreeing with the ancients that ginseng

is “the basis of the stimulation of life in its very essence

in the body of man.” (636-1) Another reading is even more

explicit in its depiction of the inherent vitality of this plant:

“Wild Ginseng, which is as an essence of the flow of the vitality

within the system itself. It is an electrifying of the vital

forces themselves.” (404-4) One reading (5596-1) noted that ginseng acted upon the glands of the

body, especially the pineal gland (another

mysterious entity!).

In addition to its vitality-enhancing

qualities, Edgar Cayce recommended

wild ginseng root as a stimulant to the

entire glandular and digestive systems.

Combined with ginger and lactated pepsin,

ginseng was also commonly recommended

for colitis and intestinal problems.

Although the readings did not

specify national sources (e.g., American,

Chinese, Korean, Manchurian, etc.),

there was a consistent insistence on

“wild” ginseng.

Ginseng Basics

The name ginseng is derived from the

Chinese word jen-shen, which describes

the shape of the root and means

“manlike.” The manlike or spindleshaped

root produces a straight stem

with three large compound leaves, each

composed of five serrated leaflets. The

flowers, which bloom in June and July,

are tiny green-white to light pink blossoms.

Bright red berries are produced

in late summer.

Ginseng has a long history of use in

China where it has been used for centuries

as a cure-all with properties reputed

to increase longevity and vitality. Also

native to the Americas, ginseng was used

by certain North American Indian tribes

to relieve nausea and as an ingredient in

love potions. Today, ginseng is used extensively

to increase body strength and

vitality. It is also used for stress management

based on its reputation for reducing

fatigue, depression, and anxiety.

American ginseng is native to the

woodlands of eastern and central North

America. The wild American ginseng

that my grandfather dug once grew in

profusion but now has become quite

rare. Cultivated varieties grown in

shaded fields are common in the Eastern

United States and Canada. Even the regions

of China that are traditionally

known for the quality of their wild ginseng

have succumbed to the modern

pressures of supply and demand that

push for the cultivation this precious herb.

Wild Ginseng

Cayce’s insistence on “wild” ginseng

is consistent with ancient Chinese medicine.

The traditional Chinese position is

that slower growing wild plants, which

are harvested at an older age, absorb

more vital power from the natural environment.

Cultivated ginseng, which does

not have to compete with other woodland

plants for nutrients or water, grows

much faster and is harvested at an earlier

age before it has accumulated its full

vital potential.

This theory is supported by obvious

differences in appearance. Wild ginseng

root is dark tan in color, relatively small,

light in weight, and gnarled in appearance

with many concentric growth rings

that are forked (resembling the human

form). Wild ginseng root typically has a

long neck.

Cream-colored cultivated roots tend

to be large, smooth, and heavy with a

shape resembling a carrot. Furthermore,

the domesticated variety usually has a

short neck.

Intensely cultivated ginseng is vulnerable

to fungal diseases that are controlled

by vigorous use of fungicides. The possibility

of pesticide residues in cultivated

crops is a major concern for health-conscious


With the rarity of wild ginseng and

health concerns associated with the cultivated

crops, some ginseng farmers have

adopted a middle ground of planting ginseng

in a wild setting and allowing it to

develop naturally. Wild simulated ginseng

has the appearance (and presumably

the vital potency) of truly wild ginseng

at a reduced price.

Ginseng Supplements

In the United States, the dried root of

ginseng is typically consumed as an ingredient

in a dietary supplement. This

makes ginseng largely unregulated in

terms of potency and pesticide residues.

The presence of ginseng in a laboratory

sample is determined by levels of a

distinctive chemical called ginsenoside.

Researchers who analyzed twenty-five

ginseng products from a California health-food store found that the level of

ginsenodsides varies greatly in powders

and capsules (a fifteen-fold difference)

and even more in liquid extracts (thirty-six

fold difference). Most of the products

failed to list their ginsenoside levels

on the label. When listed, the measured

ginsenoside levels ranged from 11 percent

to 330 percent of the stated amount.

Another study that focused on pesticides

and heavy metals found significant

levels of hexachlorobenzene – a potential

human carcinogen – in one of five

products labeled as containing “Korean

Ginseng.” Two other pesticides,

quintozene and lindane, were also found

to be above acceptable levels. None of

the products were contaminated with

heavy metals.

Variability is not uncommon in the

unregulated American dietary supplement

industry. European herbal suppliers are

generally much more closely regulated.

Here are some tips to keep in mind if

you are considering using ginseng:

  • Buy from reputable suppliers of dietary
  • Insist on wild or wild simulated
  • Most importantly, monitor your own
    response to the herb. Trust your intuition
    as to the potency of the product that
    you have purchased.

Hopefully, the ginseng that you obtain

will be dug by a benevolent

“wildcrafter” such as my grandfather.

A word of caution: Ginseng may interact

with certain medications such as

the blood-thinning drug Coumadin. Research

reported in the Annals of Internal

Medicine (July 2004) indicates that

ginseng may reduce that drug’s effectiveness.

As a general principle, it is always

a good idea to be alert to possible

herb/medicine interactions.

Mysterious Ginseng by David McMillin