Ginseng is a fleshy root, found in Asia and parts of North America. It prefers temperate forests, and many stocks are unfortunately at serious risk, due to overharvesting. The herb has been used in Chinese traditional medicine for centuries, and it has become popular in the West as well. Many Asian markets carry ginseng in a number of forms, and it also appears as an additive in some energy drinks and compounds designed to promote energy and mental acuity.
In order to be considered a true ginseng, a plant must be one of 11 species in the Panax genus. The two most commonly harvested species are P. schinseng, from Manchuria, and P. quinquefolius, the North American ginseng. The common name is derived from renshen, which means “man-shaped root” in Chinese. The roots are deeply forked, and they do indeed resemble little people. Above ground, ginseng has small groups of palmately compound leaves and distinct red berries.
Panax was chosen for the genus in a reference to its widespread use in China for everything from lack of energy to motion sickness, as it means “heal all” in Greek. Ginseng is commonly used as a source of energy, and it does appear to act as a stimulant. It is also believed to have benefits on memory and mental ability, and it has a long historical use as an aphrodisiac. Particularly prurient roots are said to be the most effective for this purpose.
Many people believe that ginseng is an adaptogen, meaning that it helps the body deal with stress, and research on the herb does seem to confirm this. Other studies on it have been inconclusive. Like many herbs, ginseng comes in a variety of strengths, depending on how it is harvested, handled, and processed. As a result, it is difficult to perform a true scientific study of the roots. It certainly has documented side effects, including difficulty sleeping, headaches, irregular blood pressure, and nosebleeds.
There are a number of ways to take ginseng. Some Asian users simply chew on the slightly sweet, licorice flavored roots. It can also be steeped to make tea, or ground into a powder for use in capsules. Most typically, the root is available in dried form, rather than fresh, and the leaves are sometimes available as well, although they do not appear to be as potentially beneficial as the root.