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Ginseng elixir of China

GINSENG is a fabled elixir treasured by the ancients and said to be a wonder herb curing all manner of ills. Wang Lichun visits China's mountainous northeast where "green gold" grows best and tells the tale of the tonic.

Ginseng refers to the plants that belong to the genus Panax. The Latin name is derived from a Greek word that means "all-healing" - attesting to the herb's medicinal properties.

Ginseng prefers a dark and humid environment with a sizable diurnal difference, and it thrives only on slopes with fertile soil. This is why most of China's ginseng is produced in the cool northeast: the Changbai, Zhangguangcai and Lesser Hinggan mountain ranges.

The Chinese were the first to use ginseng as medicine. However, ginseng's healing properties have also contributed to its scarcity. In ancient times, one inch of ginseng could be sold for as much as one inch of gold.

This made ginseng collecting a highly lucrative endeavor, and for many peasants harvesting the herb represented the fastest way out of poverty. Every year, thousands would comb the mountains hoping to make a quick buck.

The rampant plundering alarmed the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) government, which in 1699 imposed strict controls on the collection of ginseng. But this did little to stop illegal gatherers.

People began to find ways to cultivate the prized herb in their own gardens. The transplanting of wild ginseng became common, and an industry was born.

People have been gathering ginseng for more than 1,200 years, but farmers have been cultivating the herb for only about four centuries.

China is the world's top producer of ginseng, with 70 percent of the world's total produced in the Changbai Mountains in the northeast. One notable center for ginseng production is the county of Fusong in Jilin Province.

Fusong is home to the largest ginseng-trading market in Asia, as well as a lively festival every September that celebrates all things ginseng: medicine, foodstuffs, beverages, cosmetics, toothpaste and even cigarettes.

At this festival, the big buyers from South Korea are mobbed by hordes of sellers.

The Koreans import raw ginseng into their country, where it is processed, packaged and then sold at a much higher price.

Here's a little-known fact: Out of the 20,000 tons of ginseng that China produces every year, as much as 50?60 percent is exported as unprocessed ginseng, with the majority destined for South Korea.

China exports four times as much ginseng as South Korea, but earns only one-tenth as much revenue as the Koreans.

Why is Chinese ginseng so cheap?

Professor Wang Zhenyu of the Northeast Forestry University explains: "There is no regulation in China's ginseng market. There are no controls on the quantity produced. If there is a surplus, the farmers undercut one another's prices in order to sell their ginseng.

"It's possible to find raw ginseng selling for the same price as radish!

"In contrast, the Koreans have a strong cartel to manage production based on market demand. This ensures that their prices remain competitive," Wang notes.

Beyond TCM

Ginseng has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Compared with the milder American ginseng, the Korean and Chinese varieties are considered a more potent tonic, and excessive consumption can lead to excessive internal heat in the body.

This effect is due to compounds known as saponins: The concentration of saponins in Chinese ginseng is higher than that in American ginseng, and is highest in Korean ginseng.

There is a common belief that ginseng is a wonder herb that can cure all kinds of ailments - even cancer. However, researchers caution against using ginseng as a cure against a specific disease; it is safer to consider it a general tonic.

In one experiment, cancer patients were administered an entire root of ginseng. It was found that the patients received a general boost in health - but so did their cancer cells.

Researchers outside China have found that 14 saponins can be extracted from ginseng.

One of these, Rh2 has been found to inhibit the growth of cancer cells. The extraction of individual saponins is likely the crucial next step in elevating the potential of this ancient elixir.


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