The Yin of Ginseng
By Shannon Henry Kleiber | Photo By Jim Klousia | Illustration By Bambi Edlund 0
The gnarled ginseng root, looking a bit like a parsnip and offering health benefits as a stimulant, aphrodisiac and stress-reducer, is a tough one to grow. It takes nearly five years and can never be planted on the same land twice. But if a farmer has the patience and the resolve to become a ginseng grower, he or she might, if the season is good, be rewarded with riches and good health.
Around the world, ginseng has an intriguing history. There are tales that the plant has spurred wars, caused country borders to change and, because of its value, attracted thieves and liars. And it has made Wisconsin a ginseng capital, bringing in $20 million annually (thankfully, without the wars).
In both the soil in Wisconsin and the determination of the state’s farmers, something about ginseng just works. Wisconsin is the top cultivated ginseng producer in the United States, with about 90 percent of the country’s crop grown here. The root, a perennial, needs shade in the summer, a real winter to rest, and a particular mineral makeup in the earth that feeds it and lets it drain.
There are two types of ginseng: American Ginseng (primarily Wisconsin Ginseng) and Asian Ginseng. According to Chinese medicine, the American Ginseng is “Yin,” or cooling, to the Asian Ginseng, which is “Yang,” or warming.
Ginseng tea is probably the best-known use of the root, but it is also sold in powder, dried slices and capsules.
In cooking, ginseng is often paired with chicken or might be found braised with pork ribs, steamed with cabbage, and boiled in dumplings. Ginseng gives a distinctive, smoky, slightly bitter taste. For tea, it’s suggested to simply steep a desired amount in boiling water with a dollop of honey to sweeten.
The active ingredient in ginseng, the “ginsenosides,”is thought to increase energy, boost the immune system and regulate stress. At the same time, Ginseng aficionados warn that too much may contribute to insomnia; though on the positive side, a recent study by the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center in 2012 found that Ginseng fights fatigue in cancer patients. After eight weeks, the study found, cancer patients taking ginseng capsules reported less general exhaustion, with no apparent side effects. Dr. Debra Barton, the main author of the study, is planning further research into the use of ginseng for cancer patients.