Classif. Nat Ord. Araliacea. Pentandria digynia L.
Genus PANAX. Calyx superior five toothed. Corolla of five petals. Stamens five. Styles two; berry two seeded; some flowers only staminate, or with one or three styles and seeds.
Sp. Panax quinquefolium. Root fusiform, wrinkled; stem with three verticillate leaves, digitate with five unequal petiolate folioles, umbel central pedunculate. Many varieties.
1. Var. Americanum. Raf. or Cuneatum, (figured here.) Three large folioles, cuneiform or oblong obovate, acuminate, equally serrate, two at the base much smaller, ovate, acuminate, sometimes missing; flowers white. In North America, in the Western States.
2. Var. Obovatum. Raf. (figured by Barton fig. 45.) Three large folioles, obovate, acuminate, unequally and duplicate serrate, two smaller folioles, ovate or missing; flowers white. In North America, in the Atlantic States.
3. Var. Asiaticum. Raf. or Ovatum. (figured by Duhalde, &c.) Folioles nearly equal, all oval lanceolate, acute, serrulate; flowers purplish. In Central and Eastern Asia, in Manchuria, Corea, &c.
Description of the variety Americanum. Root perennial, fleshy, yellowish white, fusiform, wrinkled transversely, often forked, sometimes fasciculated in two or three spindles, ending in thick fibres, from two to six inches long. Stem one or two feet high, simple, erect, round, smooth, divided into three petioles, and a central peduncle at the end, petioles swelled at the base, bearing five folioles, each also petiolated, (sometimes only three, very seldom seven,) unequal, smooth, with some scattered bristles on the veins above; the two lower ones very small oval acuminate, the three middle ones larger, cuneiform or oblong, broader above, acuminate; all with sharp equal serratures, except at the base; flowers in a globose umbel, supported by a central erect peduncle, and a short involucrum, subulate; these flowers are small, with white petals; ovary oval, adherent, with a five toothed calyx, and two styles clavate recurved; petals five, oval, oblong, obtuse; five erect stamens, with round anthers; fruit, red berries, commonly bilobed, with two semi-globose seeds; sometimes only one style, and a dimidiate berry, or three styles with a trilobe and three seeded berry; some flowers are abortive, or simply staminate, and some plants produce only such with larger petals; calyx nearly entire, &c.
History. This plant is the famous Ginseng of the Chinese, whose name, meaning man's health, has been adopted in English and French. The Manchus call it Orhota, meaning queen of plants. The Jesuits, who had known this plant in Tartary, found it afterwards in Canada, towards 1718, and a profitable trade was begun with China, which has since undergone many fluctuations. In 1748, the root sold over one dollar the lb. in Canada, and nearly five dollars in China; it has since been reduced as low as twenty-five cents, and some shipments to China have not paid the cost and duties. The Chinese, who have many kinds of Ginseng, admitted the American, but soon found out that it was an inferior kind. The large yellow forked roots, and those dried in their peculiar manner so as to be semi-transparent, were, and are yet, the most saleable. Almost all the botanists have admitted to this day, that the American and Chinese roots were produced by the same species. Lourein was the first to doubt the fact, and I have ascertained by a more close inspection of the Chinese accounts and our plants, that they are at least distinct varieties, if not peculiar species. Whoever will compare the published figures may become convinced of this. Nay, it appears that there are even several varieties or species in North America, of which the figures of Bigelow (or mine) and of Barton, form two at least. The same happens probably in Asia; we have only the figure of one Asiatic kind to ascertain well this fact; but the medical writers of China distinguish at least ten kinds of Ginseng, some of which must be produced by very different plants: they are,
1. The true Ginseng of Manchuria, my variety Asiaticum, with large juicy forked roots, yellow and strong.
2. Ginseng of Corea, with large soft roots, commonly four leaves.
3. Of Petsi and Taighan, white firm small roots, taste mild, leaves purple.
4. Of Sinlo, roots one foot long, with branches similar to the arms and legs of a man.
5. Of Chantang, long and thin roots, with many branches, very valuable.
6. Of Leaotong, roots smooth and yellow outside, white inside.
7. Of Hiang, with sweet roots.
8. Of Chaochu, small short roots, of little value.
9. Of Chaseng, roots dry, insipid, with little strength
10. Of Kikeng, firm, but bitter root.
There is, besides, a great difference in these roots, according to the soils where growing, the time and mode of gathering, &c. This explains, at least, the variety of opinions among medical men, on the value and properties of this plant. It has always appeared strange to me, that our medical sceptics should doubt the Chinese accounts; they may be a little exaggerated, but the experience of many ages ought not to be ridiculed, because we are ignorant in Botany, have never properly analyzed this root, and have even none but an inferior kind to try. It is preposterous in Bigelow to call the Ginseng a mere demulcent, while it contains a kind of camphor, which he could not detect. The best Chinese kinds may contain other active substances, and although their high price precludes our using them, we ought, instead of laughing at the Chinese for paying once $ 100 the lb. for them (as we did for Quinine and other drugs) to try how far our kinds may be equivalents.
The American Ginseng has the same form, taste, and smell; it must, therefore, possess nearly the same properties, although in an inferior degree perhaps; our Indian tribes did employ them: we may thus avail ourselves of them, and their cheapness ought not to make them the less available, as probably larger doses will answer all the indications. The Huron tribes call this root Garantogen, meaning root like a man. They are scattered all over the Northern and Western States, from Canada to Missouri and Alabama, also in the Alleghany mountains as far as Carolina; the first variety is the most common, the second is found in Pennsylvania, and the South, seldom mixed with the other. They are rare plants in some parts, while in some districts they were very abundant, delighting chiefly in deep and rich woods; but they have been nearly extirpated from several places by the collectors, and the annual supply is now much lessened, coming chiefly from the remote western regions. It may soon be needful to cultivate them, which can easily be done, by transplantation, and the Shakers have begun the attempt, under the shade of trees. These plants are, however, of very slow growth, the shoots of the three first years has only one leaf, from four to seven years only two, and at eight years of age the root sends forth the three leaves, and begins to blossom; it is stated that when twenty years old, it often acquires four leaves, and even seven folioles in each leaf. All the roots that have not blossomed are small, and of little value; the best for use must be from ten to fifteen years old. The stem and leaves are also useful; but the berries are of no use, and not even edible. The blossoms appear in the spring, and the berries are ripe in the summer; they require two years to germinate.
Properties. The roots have a pleasant camphorated smell; the taste is sweet and pungent, with a slight degree of aromatic bitterness. They are a fine gentle and agreeable stimulant, both fresh and dry; also nervine, cordial, restorative, analeptic, demulcent, edulcorant, expectorant, stomachic, attenuant, deobstruent, &c. They owe their active properties to a peculiar substance, very similar to camphor, which I call Panacine, white, pungent, soluble in alcohol and water, and more fixed than camphor; they contain also a volatile oil, sugar, mucilage, resin, &c.
This is one of the plants upon which I have made many experiments, and ascertained that some of the properties ascribed to the roots by the Chinese are not exaggerated, although I cannot vouch for the whole. I shall, therefore, begin by giving the Chinese account of them. The Chinese medical writers, who have written volumes on these roots, say that the test of the best kinds consist in not feeling tired by walking while you chew them, or even keep them in your mouth. Our American Ginseng cannot stand this test, I believe. The best Ginseng warms the cold stomach and bowels; it cures the belly-ache, disorders and obstructions in the breast. It attenuates the blood and humours, revives the body, repairs emaciation and debility, sustains excessive labours of the body and mind, preventing weariness and dejection. It quenches thirst, and assuages hunger. It prevents dropsies and obstructions of the vessels and bowels. It fortifies a weak stomach and weak lungs. It gives appetite, and assists digestion, preventing troublesome dreams, fainting fits, palpitations and sudden frights. It renovates the vital spirits, dilates the heart, clears the sight, strengthens the judgment, making the body light and active, and the mind stronger and vigorous. It invigorates old people, and prolongs their life. It is useful for feeble breathing, short breath, and asthma. It removes all the disorders of weakness and debility, nay, is also aphrodisiac, and cures hypochondriacal, nervous, and hysterical affections. It removes also vertigo, dimness, head-ache, tenesmus, fainting, sweating, fevers, windy bowels, dyspepsia, and vomiting, &c. Such are the wonderful properties ascribed to this plant by the Chinese authors, after the experience of 2000 years or more. The physicians often unite it to orange peel, ginger, liquorice, cinnamon, peach-kernals, honey, &c. to aid the effects, and they prescribe it in powders, electuary, extract, pills, and decoction. The only detrimental property ascribed to it is that the excessive use may bring on haemorrhage. The roots are carefully dried over a decoction of millet, and afterwards in the sun to give them a yellow and horny appearance, which, with a large size, are the three requisite qualities of the roots. Dose about a drachm.
These properties must more or less belong also to our American kinds; nay, the Chinese consider the Comfrey root as often equivalent to Ginseng. The Ginseng appears to partake of the properties of camphor, valerian, zedoary, rosemary, and comfrey, of which it may be the substitute. The European and American physicians who have tried ours, differ in opinion on the subject, which may be ascribed to some using only young or bad roots. Many consider it as a mere aromatic demulcent; others as a gentle stimulant, or recommend it in nervous disorders, debility, marasm, and the senile cough. The Indians of Canada and our empirics use it for asthma, weak stomach, debility, pains in the bones, excessive venery, gravelly complaints, &c. It is often used as a masticatory and answers the purpose of Angelica, as a restorative stomachic. A tincture is used by drunkards. The watery decoction preserves all the properties as well as the extract, which is a very good preparation. In my experiments, I have chiefly used the powder, mixed with equal quantity of honey or sugar candy in powder. I have found it a good stomachic, restorative, and nervine remedy. It acts upon the nervous system in a mild manner, and revives it. Our American Ginseng is so mild that it may be used in pretty large doses, nay, as far as an ounce. Dr. Cutler and Dr. Greenway have long ago stated to have found it useful, even in small doses of ten to twenty grains, in convulsions, vertigoes, nervous affections, palsy, and even dysentery. The leaves form a very grateful medical tea, which is reserved for the noble and wealthy in China; ours make equally good iea, and are sometimes used in Canada, Kentucky, and Virginia. Dr. Hales, of Troy, has used the roots and leaves as a good analeptic and restorative in fevers. Some Indians have a notion that it makes women fruitful. This article appears, therefore, to deserve further attention, instead of total neglect.
Medical Flora, or Manual of the Medical Botany of the United States of North America, Vol. 2, 1830, was written by C. S. Rafinesque.