Friday, July 20, 2007

GINSENG: The adaptogenic and immune-system boosting elements of ginseng are now clinically studied and verified.

My first experience with American ginseng was twenty years ago. I was hiking with a friend in the Buffalo National River area, high above the river on a path known as the Goat Trail. We stopped hiking for a few minutes and rested on a tiny rock ledge overlooking the river valley. My companion reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a white, wrinkled piece of root. Breaking off some, he handed the larger portion to me.

"Here, break off a piece and chew it slowly."

"What is it?" I asked, as I reached in my pocket for my knife.

"American ginseng," was his reply. "And you should never cut ginseng with a knife. It's considered sacred by some cultures, so I observe that by never cutting the root with a knife. Break off a piece," he continued, "or just bite off a small portion."

American ginseng is used by some people as a stimulant when they are tired, "Sort of like drinking a cup of coffee," he explained. "It will help you maintain your energy level as we continue hiking."

As I sat chewing the pungent, earthy root, I watched an eagle riding on air currents over the river far below. Snow outlined the river in places and steam rose from the rapids. The entire river, hundreds of feet below us, was just a silvery ribbon, wrinkled by the white foam of rapids every quarter mile or so. The taste of American ginseng always evokes for me that first introduction to this remarkable, ancient plant.

American ginseng is a native plant of the United States and Canada, and other varieties of ginseng are found in China and other countries. The Chinese have records of medicinal uses of ginseng dating over a thousand years. They use ginseng as an equalizer, rather than a simple stimulant, because of a belief that illness is caused by the lack of equilibrium between the body's systems.

Native American cultures have relied upon American ginseng for energy, and as an overall tonic and balancing agent. They carried it on long journeys, much like my friend had on our hike, biting off tiny, pea-sized bites as daily energy regulators.

American ginseng was once found in rich woods from Minnesota to Maine, south to Georgia and west into Oklahoma. As the Chinese exhausted their own indigenous ginseng supplies, they turned to the United States and by the 1940s, the root was being wildcrafted and exported in large quantities to the Orient.

Wildcrafting, the practice of finding and digging roots from wild plant colonies, was once a good income-producer in rural areas of American ginseng's natural growing regions. But over the years, root buyers have made native colonies virtually extinct.

American ginseng is now cultivated in many areas, particularly in states such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Georgia, Illinois, Virginia, and West Virginia, where the growing conditions are ideal. It requires a rich, loamy, woodland soil with lots of humus. Conditions that keep the roots cool and evenly moist, are necessary. The plant grows naturally in cool, moist but not wet, valleys and on north-facing slopes of hillsides, in shade. It can be found in the early West Virginia autumn under the shade of walnut trees.

Commercial growers cultivate and grow American ginseng in raised beds, under shade cloth. Plants grown in those conditions must have many applications of fertilizer and automatic watering systems, and grow more quickly and straighter than wildcrafted plants.

Wild grown American ginseng, a separate category from wildcrafted American ginseng, is a root that is grown in the woods under natural conditions, without fertilizer or herbicides, by planting the seed or young transplants in areas where American ginseng has been found growing before.

American ginseng has taken on a magical quality in the minds of many people. One reason for that seems to spring from the price. American ginseng has remained one of the most expensive herbs to buy or sell. (This past season it was sold for an average of $450 per pound.) Another mystical quality stems from claims for its use as an aphrodisiac, for strengthening the heart, and for renewing strength and vitality. However, it is worth noting that American ginseng is not recommended for use by people with high blood pressure, since it can raise blood pressure, according to ginseng authorities.

There are many ways to add American ginseng to your life. Tea made from the leaves is an old folk remedy, but have you tried ginseng muffins? If you treat American ginseng as a seasoning herb, you can easily incorporate it into recipes for cookies and jams. Ginseng honey and ginseng chips dipped in maple syrup are flavorful too. Many health food stores offer ginseng-flavored drinks and chewing gum.

American ginseng tastes earthy, like many root crops, and has a warming, stimulating flavor. Some say it tastes vaguely of turnips and horehound candy, with a bite of hot pepper and a hint of sweetness.

Capsules and teas are popular ways to take ginseng. My own preference, however, is to bite off or break off a pea-sized piece of the dried root and chew it. The flavor is much more agreeable.

To make your own American ginseng tea, break off a piece of root about the size of a pea (or a pinto bean). Mash it slightly with the bowl end of a spoon. Pour a cup of rapidly boiling water over the root in a cup. Cover the cup and let the tea steep for 5 minutes. Add a squirt of fresh lemon juice and a teaspoon or more of honey. Sip slowly and enjoy the distinctive flavor.

Pineapple-Ginseng Wake-Up

Use as a refreshing breakfast fruit juice.

A piece of American ginseng the size of 2 pinto beans
1/2 cup boiling water
1 cup pineapple juice
1 cup apple or mango juice
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon honey (or to taste)

Mash slightly the piece of ginseng root. Pour boiling water over the ginseng and cover, letting it steep 5 to 7 minutes. Remove root and save for use again. Combine the ginseng tea with the remaining ingredients, shake or mix well, and refrigerate.

Makes about 2-1/2 cups.

V PER 1/2 CUP: 62.5 CAL(0 PERCENT FROM FAT), 0.2g PROT, 0g FAT, 15.2g CARB, 2.5mg SOD, 0mg CHOL, 0.2g FIBER.

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