GINSENG, the root of a species of Panax (P. Ginseng) , native of Manchuria and Korea, belonging to the natural order Araliaceae, used in China as a medicine. Other roots are substituted for it, notably that of Panax quinquefolium, distinguished as American ginseng, and imported from the United States. At one time the ginseng obtained from Manchuria was considered to be the finest quality, and in consequence became so scarce that an imperial edict was issued prohibiting its collection. That prepared in Korea is now the most esteemed variety. The root of the wild plant is preferred to that of cultivated ginseng, and the older the plant the better is the quality of the root considered to be. Great care is taken in the preparation of the drug. The account given by Koempfer of the preparation of nindsin, the root of Sium ninsi, in Korea, will give a good idea of the preparation of ginseng, ninsi being a similar drug of supposed weaker virtue, obtained from a different plant, and often confounded with ginseng. " In the beginning of winter nearly all the population of Sjansai turn out to collect the root, and make preparations for sleeping in the fields. The root, when collected, is macerated for three days in fresh water, or water in which rice has been boiled twice; it is then suspended in a closed vessel over the fire, and afterwards dried, until from the base to the middle it assumes a hard, resinous and translucent appearance, which is considered a proof of its good quality."
Ginseng of good quality generally occurs in hard, rather brittle, translucent pieces, about the size of the little finger, and varying in length from 2 to 4 in. The taste is mucilaginous, sweetish and slightly bitter and aromatic. The root is frequently forked, and it is probably owing to this circumstance that medicinal properties were in the first place attributed to it, its resemblance to the body of a man being supposed to indicate that it could restore virile power to the aged and impotent. In price it varies from 6 or 12 dollars to the enormous sum of 300 or 400 dollars an ounce.
Lockhart gives a graphic description of a visit to a ginseng merchant. Opening the outer box, the merchant removed several paper parcels which appeared to fill the box, but under them was a second box, or perhaps two small boxes, which, when taken out, showed the bottom of the large box and all the intervening space filled with more paper parcels. These parcels, he said, " contained quicklime, for the purpose of absorbing any moisture and keeping the boxes quite dry, the lime being packed in paper for the sake of cleanliness. The smaller box, which held the ginseng, was lined with sheet-lead ; the ginseng further enclosed in silk wrappers was kept in little silkencovered boxes. Taking up a piece, he would request his visitor not to breathe upon it, nor handle it; he would dilate upon the many merits of the drug and the cures it had effected. The cover of the root, according to its quality, was silk, either embroidered or plain, cotton cloth or paper." In China the ginseng is often sent to friends as a valuable present; in such cases, "accompanying the medicine is usually given a small, beautifully-finished double kettle, in which the ginseng is prepared as follows. The inner kettle is made of silver, and between this and the outside vessel, which is a copper jacket, is a small space for holding water. The silver kettle, which fits on a ring near the top of the outer covering, has a cup-like cover in which rice is placed with a little water; the ginseng is put in the inner vessel with water, a cover is placed over the whole, and the apparatus is put on the fire. When the rice in the cover is sufficiently cooked, the medicine is ready, and is then eaten by the patient, who drinks the ginseng tea at the same time." The dose of _the root is from 60 to 90 grains. During the use of the drug teadrinking is forbidden for at least a month but no other change is made in the diet. It is taken in the morning before breakfast, From three to eight days together, and sometimes it is taken in the evening before going to bed.
The action of the drug appears to be entirely psychic, and comparable to that of the mandrake of the Hebrews. There is no evidence that it possesses any pharmacological or therapeutic properties.
See Porter Smith, Chinese Materia Medica, p. 103; Reports on Trade at the Treaty Ports of China (1868), p. 63; Lockhart, Med. Missionary in China (2nd ed.), p. 107; Bull, de la Societe Imperiale de Nat. de Moscou (1865), No. i, pp. 70-76; Pharmaceutical Journal (2), vol. iii. pp. 197, 333, (2), vol. ix. p. 77; Lewis, Materia Medica, p. 324; Geoffroy, Tract, de matiere medicate, t. ii. p. 112; Kaempfer, Amoenitates exoticae, p. 824.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)