History and science have their romances as vivid and as fascinating as any in the realms of fiction. No story ever told has surpassed in interest the history of this mysterious plant Ginseng; the root that for nearly 200 years has been an important article of export to China.
Until a few years ago not one in a hundred intelligent Americans living in cities and towns, ever heard of the plant, and those in the wilder parts of the country who dug and sold the roots could tell nothing of its history and use. Their forefathers had dug and sold Ginseng. They merely followed the old custom.
The natural range of Ginseng growing wild in the United States is north to the Canadian line, embracing all the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Tennessee. It is also found in a greater part of the following states: Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, North and South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. Until recently the plant was found growing wild in the above states in abundance, especially those states touched by the Allegheny mountains. The plant is also found in Ontario and Quebec, Canada, but has become scarce there also, owing to persistent hunting. It also grows sparingly in the states west of and bordering on the Mississippi river.
Ginseng in the United States was not considered of any medical value until about 1905, but in China it is and has been highly prized for medical purposes and large quantities of the root are exported to that country. It is indeed doubtful if the root has much if any medical value, and the fact that the Chinese prefer roots that resemble, somewhat, the human body, only goes to prove that their use of the root is rather from superstition than real value.
However, this superstition is in the main confined to the wild mountain Ginseng of Korea and Manchuria and does not apply at all to the American cultivated Ginseng and, in fact, I cannot find that it has any application even to our wild root. I have shipped direct to China large amounts covering a period of years and have had very definite instructions as to what kind and shape of root to ship, but have never had any mention made of roots resembling the human form.
Some of our orders for dry Ginseng root have been as high as one thousand pounds at a single order, and not only that, but we have had several Chinamen come to our place and personally select the roots, and through all my dealings with the Chinese I have never heard one of them mention such shaped roots as being desirable.
It has been supposed that certain localities gave a better quality of Ginseng than others. The fur dealers, in their price list usually quote, especially the wild root, at a higher price from the northern states than they do from the southern states. The cause of this difference in price is not the real quality of the root but the manner of gathering and handling. In the south it has been the practice of Ginseng hunters to dig and dry everything. In the north only the larger roots have been dug. This makes all the difference there is. In the south, most of the wild root is gathered by poor, ignorant people and their methods are not the best. When gathered, it is usually strung on strings and hung up in the living room, where it gathers dust and colors unevenly from the light striking it on one side only. Not only this shiftless manner of handling but often stems are put on the string and sometimes other kinds of root and all left on strings when sent to market. I have repeatedly taken roots from the south and others about the same size from the north, and I find no Chinaman can tell them apart. With the cultivated, there is absolutely no difference as to quality that is caused by location so far as the northern and southern states are concerned, nor in fact, any locality where Ginseng will thrive. In this connection the short chapter on quality will be interesting.
Ginseng in its wild or natural state grows mainly in mixed hard wood forests, although it is sometimes found among evergreens. Originally, it was usually found in abundance among the maples, beeches, basswood, rock elm and butternuts, and especially on the shady sides of deep gullies.
The Ginseng plant ripens its seed in late summer or early fall, according to the locality in which it grows. As nature planned it, this seed, coated with a bright scarlet covering, dropped on the ground, and often became dry before the leaves would fall and cover it. From the time the leaves of the forest trees covered the seed, it would naturally be moist until time for it to grow. It, therefore, follows that soon after gathering the seed, it may be allowed to dry but after that it should at all times be kept somewhat moist. The seed ripens in New York state the last of August and does not grow until about eighteen months after. In other words, it does not grow, except in rare cases, the spring following but waits until the second spring.
The first season the young Ginseng plant has but three leaves and it very strongly resembles the wild strawberry leaf. At two years old it generally has four leaves and reaches a height of eight or ten inches. It is not unusual for strong two year old cultivated plants to show the mature leaf arrangement, which is three leaf stalks branching from one stalk and each leaf stem having five leaves. The mature plant sometimes reaches the height of two feet but eighteen inches is a good average for garden Ginseng. The wild plant is less. The stalk dies down every fall, and where it perishes away from the neck of the root, it leaves a scar which remains to tell the age of the plant in after years. In this locality, about the middle of July a new bud forms for the next season's stalk. This bud forms on the opposite side of the neck. This habit causes the neck of this root to be made up of series of scars from the stalks dropping off. I have in my possession a wild root showing 90 of these scars. It often happens, however, that as the neck of these very old plants gets very long, that it rots off and a bud will form down near the main root. In this case, the age of the plant cannot be told.
While the palmy days were on, it was a novel occupation. The "sang diggers," as they were called, go into the woods with a small mattock, a sack and a lunch and the hunt for the valuable plant begins. Ginseng usually grows in patches. This is not because the plant is by nature a bedding plant but for the reason that the seeds fall near the parent plant. The Ginseng family does not spread from the root at all but comes wholly from seed. In the early days, hunters found very large patches where for hundreds of years the parent plant and its progeny had increased without molestation. Sometimes as high as one hundred pounds of root would be secured from one such plot. Women as well as men and boys hunt the root. The plant is well known to all mountain lads and lasses and few are the mountain cabins that have no Ginseng in them waiting or in preparation for market. The fall is the proper time to gather this root and in the north that is about the only time it is gathered but in the south, it is dug whenever found, as the hunting of "seng" is a business there, if the finder does not gather it as soon as found, some other "digger" is sure to save him the trouble.
How this odd commerce with China arose is in itself remarkable. Many years ago, Father Jartoux, a Catholic priest, one who had long served in China, came as a missionary to the wilds of Canada. Here, in the wilds of the forest, he noted a plant bearing a close resemblance to one much valued as a medicine by the Chinese. A few roots were gathered and sent as a sample to China. Many months later, the ships brought back the welcome news that the Chinese would buy the roots. Early in its history, the value of Ginseng as a cultivated crop was recognized and repeated efforts made to propagate it, but without success at that time. Many failures led to the belief that Ginseng could not be grown. All the early experiments in growing Ginseng were conducted by common "sang diggers" and their failures all hinged on shading. To me it seems strange that it never occurred to them that shade was needed.
It remained for Geo. Stanton, in the early eighties, to be the first to successfully grow this plant. I can do no better at this point than introduce a short obituary written by J. K. Bramer.
Unless others more prompt and thoughtful of the memory of our lamented friend and co-worker and first president of the New York State Ginseng Association—George Stanton—have occupied all the space at your disposal in next issue of SPECIAL CROPS, perhaps you and your many readers who, through his contributions to your paper, extended correspondence and wide personal acquaintance, had learned to respect and honor the man, will be pleased with a few lines in commemoration from one who has known him all his life and considered him as a brother, as well I might, for at the time of my birth Mr. Stanton, as a poor, homeless boy, was living with my folks and learning the tinsmith's trade with my father in the village of Fabius, N. Y. Upon completing his apprenticeship he took a part interest in the business and still later purchased the entire business, which he conducted profitably for a number of years. As a tin worker Mr. Stanton was an expert. Anything that could be constructed from tin or sheet iron that the ordinary man failed on, fell to him, and it is a frequent thing to hear his ingenuity as a mechanic mentioned. The need of more and better tin working tools stimulated him to invent and patent several devices. The improved vat used so commonly years ago and to some extent yet, in cheese factories, was also his invention, the model of which is in my possession now.
Never a robust man, he was finally compelled to give up his indoor work. For years it seemed that his struggle for life would be against him, as it surely must except for his indomitable will. Coupled with the frail body and poor health, was an ambition and perseverance that rarely accompany a much more robust person, and which would never allow him to be idle. His motto was "wear out, not rust out," which he did in living up to. Along about 1885 nobody expected he could survive any length of time, but he would drag himself to the woods and dig a few wild ginseng roots because of the love he had for the exercise. About this time the thought occurred to him that if he could only transplant the small roots in his garden and cultivate and grow them to a profitable size for drying it might be a pleasing vocation, and work that he, in his feeble health, could do. The carrying out of this thought was the foundation work of Ginseng culture and the "George Stanton Chinese Ginseng Farm."
It is probable that had Mr. Stanton been a robust man and able to carry on a heavier work, the cultivation of Ginseng as an industry would not have been put before the public until much later, if ever. There is no gainsaying that Mr. Stanton is the "father of the Ginseng industry," a title he was justly proud of. The many incidents connected with the early and tender years in the life of his much loved child before it was able to run alone, are interesting and sometimes pathetic. The tenderness with which be would handle the little roots, which he called his "babies," would remind you of the care a mother would show in the tucking away of a real baby in its little bed. The study he gave to their necessities, and the anxiety lest certain things and conditions might be harmful to them, were amusing to me, because at that time and for a long time after, I had not become imbued with the spirit and belief in the real vale of what I called his "hobby" and the prominence it was destined to take. The efforts he made to get the results of his first two years' experience before the public, and the contempt he met with from most publishers would have discouraged anybody else, but he kept hammering away, got out a small circular and finally kindled a small spark of interest in the minds of a few. From this spark a flame was started that finally caught such men as Timerman, Crosly, Ready, Mills, Perkins, Curtis, Goodspeed, the Knapps and others in this vicinity, and many more in other parts of the state and many other states, who became expert growers. The history of Ginseng culture from then on, you are all more or less conversant with. Mr. Stanton's prominence in the history of the business, especially its first years, must always rest secure with him. Those who knew him best knew his peculiarities and many of the later growers did not think it necessary to follow him in all the little details of cultivation laid down by him. Improvements in methods in any enterprise are looked for and expected. But in honor to Mr. Stanton's methods and thoroughness I am free to say that so far as my knowledge goes no nicer or larger roots have ever been produced than in certain beds over which he had entire supervision. Now that the good kind-hearted old man is gone, I feel a great pleasure in knowing that he had a perfect right to enjoy his feeling of pride in the pattern he had set. Others have outgrown him in the business so far as territory is concerned, but I do not think the particular beds above referred to have been equaled. Am in hope this small tribute may be of interest to some of your readers, and I also hope some one better equipped may give the subject of this sketch fuller measure of justice. Personally, I fell the loss of my long time friend very keenly. His death occurred January 31st, near Jamestown, N. Y., where he was spending the winter. It was my privilege in carrying out one of his last requests to bring his body back to his home for burial in the family plot at Tully, N. Y. He was buried from his old home M. E. church, of which he was a member of long standing. It was the common expression of his old acquaintances that he had by his life earned the epithet of an honest man. Cannot we all strive to earn as grand a title?
Yours truly, J. K. BRAMER.
Apulia Station, N, Y., Feb, 28, 1908.
As has since been shown, Ginseng can be easily grown and responds readily to proper care and attention. Under right conditions, the cultivated roots are much larger than the wild and at first brought extremely high prices. As the Chinese came to know of our cultivating the root, it lost favor with them and the wild root is still the highest in their esteem. This is mainly owing to the slow growth which will be touched upon in the chapter on Quality.
The Chinese Ginseng is not quite the same plant as the American Ginseng, but is so near that the casual observer could not distinguish the one from the other. The chemists, however, say that so far as analysis shows, both have practically the same properties.
The photos which accompany give a more accurate appearance of the plants than is possible to give from a written description.
Western authorities have heretofore placed little value on Ginseng as a curative agent, but a number of recent investigations seem to reverse this opinion. The Chinese, however, have always placed the highest value upon it and millions have used and esteemed it for untold centuries. Its preparation and uses have never been fully understood by western people.
Our Consuls in China have at various times furnished our government with very full reports of its high value and universal use in the "Flowery Kingdom." From these we learn that "Imperial Ginseng," the highest grade grown in the royal parks and gardens, is jealously watched and is worth from $40.00 to $200.00 per pound. Of course its use is limited to the upper circle of China's four hundred. The next quality comes from Korea and is valued at $15.00 to $35.00 per pound. Its use is also limited to the lucky few. The third grade includes American Ginseng and is the great staple kind. It is used by every one of China's swarming millions who can possibly raise the price. The fourth grade is Japanese Ginseng and is used by those who can do no better.
Mr. Wildman, of Hong Kong, says: "The market for a good article is practically unlimited. There are four hundred million Chinese and all to some extent use Ginseng. If they can once become satisfied with the results obtained from the tea made from American Ginseng, the yearly demand will run up into the millions of dollars' worth." Another curious fact is the Chinese highly prize certain peculiar shapes among these roots especially those resembling the human form. For such they gladly pay fabulous prices, sometimes six hundred times its weight in silver. The rare shapes are not used as medicine but kept as a charm, very much as some Americans keep a rabbit's foot for luck.
Sir Edwin Arnold, that famous writer and student of Eastern peoples, says of its medicinal values: "According to the Chinamen, Ginseng is the best and most potent of cordials, of stimulants, of tonics, of stomachics, cardiacs, febrifuges, and, above all, will best renovate and reinvigorate failing forces. It fills the heart with hilarity while its occasional use will, it is said, add a decade of years to the ordinary human life. Can all these millions of Orientals, all those many generations of men, who have boiled Ginseng in silver kettles and have praised heaven for its many benefits, have been totally deceived? Was the world ever quite mistaken when half of it believed in something never puffed, nowhere advertised and not yet fallen to the fate of a Trust, a Combine or a Corner?"
It has been asked why the Chinese do not grow their own Ginseng. In reply it may be said that America supplies but a very small part, indeed, of the Ginseng used in China. The bulk comes from Korea and Manchuria, two provinces belonging to China, or at least which did belong to her until the recent Eastern troubles.
Again, Ginseng requires practically a virgin soil, and as China proper has been the home of teeming millions for thousands of years, one readily sees that necessary conditions for the plant hardly exist in that old and crowded country.
Ginseng and Other Medicinal Plants, 1936, was written by A. R. Harding.