In the early part of the eighteenth century some accounts were sent to Europe by travellers and missionaries, of a root growing in Chinese Tartary, known by the name of Ginsengs upon which a high value was set by the eastern Asiatics, and which was sold in the cities of China at an enormous price. Father Jartoux, a missionary at Pekin, who had an opportunity of witnessing the collection and use of this root, made a drawing of the plant, accompanied with a particular description, and an account of its uses, and the cause of its high estimation and demand among the Chinese. While on a journey among the mountains of Tartary, performed under the sanction of the emperor of China, he met in various instances with the plant, and with people employed in collecting it. He states that the root is found principally between the 39th and 47th degree of north latitude, in thick forests, upon the declivities of mountains, on the banks of torrents, and about the roots of trees. It never grows in the open plains or vallies, but always in dark, shady situations, remote from the sun's rays.
As the right of gathering this root is monopolized by the emperor of China, the most extensive precautions are taken by him to prevent an encroachment on this privilege. The places where the Ginseng is known to grow are guarded with great vigilance, and a whole province, that of Quantong, bordering on the desert, is surrounded by a barrier of wooden stakes, about which guards continually patrole, to keep the inhabitants within bounds, and prevent them from making excursions into the woods, in search of the prohibited drug. Notwithstanding this vigilance, their eagerness after gain incites the Chinese to wander by stealth in the desert, sometimes to the number of two or three thousand, in search of the root, at the hazard of losing their liberty, and all the fruits of their labour, if they are taken. The emperor employs his own servants for the purpose of collection, and in the year 1709, had ten thousand Tartars engaged in scouring the woods in pursuit of the plant. Each man so employed was obligated to present his majesty two ounces of the best he should collect, and to sell him the rest for its weight in pure silver. At this rate it was computed that the emperor would get in a year, about 20,000 Chinese pounds, which would cost him not above one quarter of its value, at the common rate of selling it.
The collectors of the Ginseng carry with them neither tents nor beds, every one being sufficiently loaded with his provision, which is only parched millet, on which he is obliged to subsist during the whole journey. The mandarins send them from time to time some pieces of beef, with such game as they happen to take, which they eat very greedily, and almost raw. They are accustomed to sleep on the ground, and notwithstanding six months are passed in this way, they continue lusty and in perfect health.
The army of herbalists, in order to scour the country effectually, divide themselves into companies of one hundred each, which proceed forward in direct line, every ten of them keeping at a distance from the rest. In this way they overrun an extensive wilderness in a short space of time.
If any one of the company was wanting, as it often happened, either by having wandered out of the way, or being attacked by wild beasts, the party devoted a day or two to search for him, and then returned to their labour.
The root of the Ginseng is the only part preserved. The collectors bury in the ground every ten or fifteen days all that they have procured. In order to prepare it for use, they dip it in scalding water, and scour it with a brush. The roots are then prepared with the fumes of a species of millet, to give them a yellow colour. The millet is put in a vessel with a little water and boiled over a gentle fire. The roots are placed over the vessel upon transverse pieces of wood, being first covered with a linen cloth or another vessel. When treated in this way they assume upon drying a horny or semi-transparant appearance.
The roots may also be dried in the sun, or by the fire, and retain their qualities perfectly. In this case, however, they have not that yellow colour, which the Chinese so much admire.
The Chinese consider the Ginseng as possessing unequalled medicinal powers, and their physicians have written many volumes upon the qualities of the plant. It is made an ingredient in almost all the remedies which they give to their nobility, its price being too expensive for the common people. The sick take it to recover health, and the healthy to make themselves stronger and more vigorous. They affirm that it removes all fatigue, either of body or mind, dissolves humours, cures pulmonary diseases, strengthens the stomach, increases the vital spirits, and prolongs life to old age. Its price at Pekin, according to travellers, has been eight or nine times its weight in silver, and even more.
Father Jartoux became so far a convert to the virtues of the plant, that he tells us that after having taken half of a root, he found his pulse quicker and fuller, his appetite improved, and his strength increased so as to bear labour better than before. On another occasion, finding himself so fatigued and wearied as to be scarce able to sit on horseback, a mandarin in company perceiving his distress, gave one of the roots. He took half of it, and in an hour was not sensible of any weariness. "I have observed," says he, "that the green leaves, especially the fibrous part of them, when chewed, would produce nearly the same effect. The Tartars often bring us the leaves of Ginseng instead of tea, and I always find myself so well afterwards, that I should readily prefer them before the best tea. Their decoction is of a grateful colour, and when one has taken it twice or thrice, its taste and smell become very pleasant."
The Chinese use a decoction of the root, for which they employ about a fifth part of an ounce at a time. This they boil in a covered vessel with two successive portions of water, in order to extract all its virtue.
The following is the substance of Jartoux's description of the Asiatic plant. The root is whitish, rugged and uneven. The stalk is round, and shaded with red; it terminates in a knot or joint at top, from which proceed four equal branches. Each branch produces five leaves, which are equidistant from each other, and from the ground. The leaves are unusually thin and fine, with their fibres very distinguishable, and a few whitish hairs on the upper side. Their colour is dark green above, and a pale, shining green underneath. All the leaves are serrated or finely indented on the edge.
From the centre of the branches rises a second stalk which is very straight and smooth, and whitish from bottom to top, bearing a bunch of round fruit, of a beautiful red colour, composed of twenty four red berries. The red skin of the berry is thin and smooth, and contains a white pulp. As these berries were double, (for they are sometimes found single,) each of them had two rough stones, separated from each other, of nearly the size and figure of common lentils. The berries were supported on small sprigs, which rose from a common centre like the rays of a sphere. The fruit is not good to eat. The berries are not round but a little flat on each side. When they are double there is a depression or hollow place in the middle where the two parts unite. Each berry has a small beard at top diametrically opposite to the sprig on which it hangs. When the berry is dry there remains only a shrivelled skin, adhering close to the stones, of a dark red, or black colour.
The plant dies away and springs up again every year. The number of years may be known by the number of stalks it has shot forth, of which there always remains a mark or scar on the upper part of the root.
"As to the flower," says he, "not having seen it, I can give no description of it. Some say it is white and very small; others have assured me that the plant has none, and that nobody ever saw it. I rather believe that it is so small and so little remarkable, that none of them ever took notice of it.
"There are some plants, which, besides the bunch of berries, have one or two berries like the former, placed an inch or an inch and an half below the bunch. And when this happens, they say if any one takes notice of the point of compass to which these berries direct, he will not fail to find more of the plant."
The foregoing description of Jartoux is introduced as being a very intelligible description of a plant, in language not the most botanical. The drawing, which accompanies the description, is very satisfactory.
The report of the high value of the Ginseng at Pekin led to an inquiry among Europeans, whether the plant was not to be found in parallel latitudes, in the forests of North America. Father Lafiteau, a Jesuit, missionary among the Iroquois, after much search, found a plant in Canada answering the description, and sent it to France. In 1718, M. Sarrasin published in the Memoirs of the Academy an account of the American Ginseng; which, together with one published by Lafiteau the same year, seemed to put its identity with the Chinese vegetable beyond a doubt.
Soon after this the French commenced the collection of the root in Canada for exportation. For this purpose they employed the Indians, who brought it to the merchants for a certain compensation. At one period the Indians about Quebec and Montreal were so wholly taken up in the search for Ginseng, that their services could not be engaged for any other purpose. The American English engaged in the same traffic, and although the plant is a rare one in the woods, yet very large quantities of the root were collected. In 1748, Kalm tells us the common price of the root at Quebec was from five to six livres a pound. The first shipments to China proved extremely profitable to those concerned, especially to the French. In a short time, however, the amount exported overstocked the market, the Chinese began to think the American Ginseng inferior to the Tartarian, and its value depreciated, so that it ceased to be an object of profitable commerce. Its demand has not materially risen at any subsequent period, although it is still occasionally exported. The Chinese most readily purchase the forked or branching roots; and those exporters have been most successful, who have prepared their Ginseng by clarifying it after the Chinese manner.
The American Ginseng is thinly scattered throughout the mountainous regions of the Northern and Middle States. Kalm informs us, that it is seldom found north of Montreal. Michaux states that it inhabits mountains and rich, shady woods from Canada to Tennessee. I have principally met with this plant in the western parts of Massachusetts, and in Vermont, especially on the sides of the Ascutney mountain. Bartram found it near the mouth of the Delaware.
Linnaeus has given to the genus of plants, which includes the Ginseng, the name of Panax, a Greek word, intended to express the reputed character of the Chinese panacea.
The character of this genus consists in a simple umbel; corolla five petalled; berry inferior, two or three seeded; plants polygamous.
The species quinquefolium has three quinate leaves.
The root of this plant consists of one or more fleshy, oblong and somewhat fusiform portions, of a whitish colour, transversely wrinkled, and terminating in various radicles. Its upper portion is slender and marked with the scars of the former shoots. Stem smooth, round, green, with often a tinge of red, regularly divided at top into three petioles, with a flower-stalk at their centre. Petioles round, smooth, swelling at base. Leaves three, compound, containing five, rarely three or seven leafets. The partial leaf-stalks are given off in a digitate manner, and are smooth, compressed and furrowed above. Leafets oblong, obovate, sharply serrate, acuminate, smooth on both sides, with scattered bristles on the veins above. The flowers, which are small, grow in a simple umbel on a round, slender peduncle, longer than the petioles. The involucrum consists of a multitude of short subulate leafets, interspersed with the flower-stalks. These stalks or rays are so short as to give the appearance of a head, rather than umbel. In the perfect flowers the calyx has five small acute teeth; the corolla five petals, which are oval, reflexed and deciduous. Stamens five, with oblong anthers. Styles two, reflexed, persistent; germ large, inferior, ovate-heart shaped, compressed. The berries are kidney shaped, retuse at both ends, compressed, of a bright scarlet colour, crowned with the calyx and styles, and containing two semi-circular seeds. In most umbels there are flowers with only one style, in which case the berry has a semi-cordate form, as represented in fig. 3. Sometimes there are three styles and three seeds. The outermost flowers ripen first, and their berries often obtain their full size before the central ones are expanded. The middle flowers are frequently abortive.
There are also barren flowers, on separate plants, which botanists describe as having larger petals, and an entire calyx. I have not met with plants of this description in flower.
The foregoing character leaves little doubt that the American plant is precisely the same with the Asiatic, although Loureiro and some others have disputed their identity. The description of Jartoux, which has been given, as well as his drawing of the plant, agrees in every respect, except that his plant had four branches or leaves, instead of three. This is accounted for by supposing he had chosen a luxuriant specimen.
It is somewhat remarkable that the names of the Chinese, and of the North American Indians, should signify the same thing in their respective languages, viz. a resemblance to the figure of a man. This resemblance, how ever, it must be confessed, even in the branching roots, is rather of a humble kind.
The genus Panax was placed by Linnreus in his class Polygamia, and by late writers in Pentandria, Digynia. The plants of this family were also referred by Linnaeus to his natural order Hederaeae, or somewhat heterogeneous assemblage of vegetables; and by Jussieu to his Araliae. Later botanists have placed them among the Umbelliferous vegetables, from which they differ in their berried fruit. The genus most near to Panax is unquestionably Aralia, which differs only in the number of styles, a character extremely variable in the Ginsengs. [Panax trifolium; a beautiful little plant, with nearly the herb of Anemone nemorosa, has always three styles and a tricoccous berry. P. quinquefolium varies from one to three styles, though the usual number is two.]
The root of the Ginseng has an agreeable taste, consisting of a mixture of sweet and bitter, with some aromatic pungency. Water, both cold and hot, receives a gummy mucus, which is precipitated by alcohol. The watery extract has the taste and smell of the root in a strong degree. The distilled water gives evidence of a volatile oil, and has the aroma, without the sweetness of the root. The common tests indicate the presence of but little resin, and no tannin.
As far as Ginseng has been tried medicinally in this country, and in Europe, its virtues do not appear, by any means, to justify the high estimation of it by the Chinese. That it is not a very active substance, is proved by the fact, that a whole root may be eaten without inconvenience. Its place in the materia medica is among demulcents. It approaches more nearly to liquorice, than to any other medicine in its taste and external qualities. Its extract forms a very neat preparation, and is by no means unpleasant to the taste. Dr. Fothergill tells us, that "in tedious chronic coughs, incident to people in years, a decoction of it has been of service. It consists of a lubricating mucilage combined with some degree of aromatic warmth."
Ginseng is principally sold by our druggists as a masticatory, many people having acquired an habitual fondness for chewing it. It is certainly one of the most innocent articles for this purpose.
Panax quinquefolium, Lin. sp. pl.
Michaux, Flora, ii. 256.
Pursh, i. 191.
Woodville, Med. Bot. i. t. 58.
Botanical Mag. t. 1025.
Aureliana Canadensis, Catesby, Car. Suppl. t. 16.
Breynius in Prod. rar. p. 52.
Araliastrum foliis ternis quinquepartitis, Ginseng sen Ninsin officinarum.
Trew, Ehr. t. 6, f. 1.
Bourdelin, Hist. de l'Acad. 1797.
Jartoux, tr. in Phil. Trans. xxviii. 237.
Lafiteau, Memoires concernant la precieuse plante de Ginseng. Paris, 1718.
Sarrasin, Hist. Acad. 1718.
Kalm, travels, tr. iii. 114.
Osbeck, China, p. 145.
Heberden, Med. Trans. iii. 34.
Fothergill, Gent. Mag. xxiii. 209.
Cullen, Mat. Med. Vol. ii. &c.
American Medical Botany, 1817-1821, was written by Jacob Bigelow, M. D.