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Ginseng Dreams: The Secret World of America’s Most Valuable Plant

Ginseng Dreams: The Secret World of America’s Most Valuable Plant by Kristin Johannsen. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky; 2006. Hardcover; 244 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0813123844. $24.95.

This is the second book to come out within the last two years, along with David Taylor’s Ginseng: The Divine Root (Algonquin Books 2006), that focuses on the fascinating history and culture of ginseng (Panax spp., Araliaceae) and not on the cultivation of ginseng as a cash crop. Very much like Taylor’s book, this one focuses on the individual perspectives of a small group of people with diverse backgrounds—such as a cancer researcher, a farmer, and a criminal investigator—each with his or her own story of this mysterious plant. Johannsen also follows ginseng from the hills of rural Appalachia to the shimmering, modern glass buildings of Hong Kong. The marriage of ancient culture, tradition, and modern medicine rarely succeeds, but this herb transcends time and distance. The book flows smoothly from chapter to chapter as the author skips over continents to weave the stories together.

In telling the fascinating history of the American ginseng trade dating back from the early 1700s, she apparently corrects one or two mistakes published in other books. The story of how Daniel Boone lost “12 tons” of dried ginseng roots when a barge overturned on the Ohio River is more realistically retold when “tons” is re-translated as “tuns” meaning “barrels.” As common as ginseng once was in the early 1800s, a single shipment of 24,000 dry pounds by someone even as famous as Daniel Boone seems unlikely.

However, the author does make a few mistakes of her own. Just about everyone who writes about ginseng botany makes mistakes or confuses field-cultivated ginseng with woodland grown ginseng. Johannsen repeats some of the misinformation that has appeared, unfortunately, even in some peer-reviewed scientific journals. She describes ginseng’s growth from seed to maturity as if it occurs in a predictable linear fashion as it might under controlled laboratory conditions, but not as it grows in woodlands. Woodland ginseng-growing habits from Canada to Georgia are so diverse that they defy hard and fast characterizations. Ginseng plants do not necessarily produce berries in 3 years nor do they reach a maximum height of about 20 inches. They’re also not limited to a total of 5 compound leaves (prongs) regardless of age. The age of ginseng roots may be roughly estimated by counting the stalk abscission scars on the rhizome (not on the side of the root as she writes), but it is far from “precise,” as anyone who has examined dry ginseng roots can attest. Ginseng does not necessarily produce a new stalk each year with a signature scar on the ever-lengthening rhizome to show its age after the top senesces (reaches maturity). Ginseng plants growing in the wild may fail to produce any new top growth at all for years at a time when environmental conditions are unfavorable (e.g., drought). This seeming ability to “hide” for extended periods of time may contribute to the continued existence of ginseng populations thought to have been completely harvested.

The section of this book that I found most interesting was the one dealing with ginseng’s medicinal properties. Ancient folklore proclaims ginseng as a powerful aphrodisiac. One of Johannsen’s main sources, Laura Murphy, PhD, researcher for the Laura Murphy Laboratory of Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a teacher in the Department of Physiology, decided to test the effects of American ginseng on rats and was astonished to learn that it really was a powerful aphrodisiac! Rats fed ginseng powder in sesame oil had a much higher libido and performance rate than the control group. No other substance tested, not even marijuana (Cannabis sativa, Cannabinaceae), cocaine, or prescription drugs used for libido enhancement were as strong as the effects she saw from ginseng. Dr. Murphy’s work with American ginseng on breast and prostate cancer is ongoing and so far has yielded very promising results.

Despite the dearth of published Western (i.e., US) research, Asian ginseng is currently listed in the national pharmacopeias of Austria, China, France, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, and Russia. The extreme difficulties of getting grant money and publishing research results for non-patented herbal medicines is well known by many medical researchers, and ginseng is no exception to this problem.

In conclusion, Ginseng Dreams is a delightful book for anyone who enjoys light reading about such a fascinating plant/medicine/folklore icon. Kristin Johannsen is a good writer, using her real-life characters skillfully to tell an interesting and easy-to-read story. However, it is not intended to be any sort of grower’s guide or reference book. If one wants to learn how to grow ginseng or some other woodland medicinal herbs, read Scott Persons and Jeanine Davis’ excellent textbook Growing and Marketing Ginseng and Other Woodland Medicinals (Bright Mountain Books 2005). Ginseng Dreams is well researched and appeals to both professional and lay persons who are interested in both herbs and the unlikely merging of cultures from Appalachia to Asia.

—Robert Beyfuss Agriculture and Natural Resources Issue Leader, Cornell University, Cooperative Extension, Agroforestry Resource Center, Acra, NY