Ginseng, the Divine Root
The Curious History of the Plant That Captivated the World
by David A. Taylor (Mauritania 1983–85)
Algonquin Press,
June 2006
308 pages

Reviewed by Wayne Handlos (Ethiopia 1962-64)

    WHO KNEW — that the value of products sold today in the US with ginseng as an ingredient is $100 million per year; that a French Canadian Jesuit recognized that North American ginseng was very similar to Chinese ginseng and by 1752 Canada exported ginseng worth 500 thousand francs per year; that Daniel Boone was a ginseng digger in 1787 and lost tons when his keel boat was swamped; that 30 tons of ginseng was on the first American ship to China in 1784; that John Jacob Astor exported pelts of beaver and fox as well as ginseng to China in the mid-1790s; that Marathon County in Wisconsin is the largest source of cultivated ginseng in the US today with production values up to $100,00 per acre?
         Who knew that such an ordinary looking woodland plant would become so widely distributed and have such a fascinating history?
         Who knew that a plant/root that has been used in China since at least 2000 BC would now be found in hundreds of commercial products in grocery stores, gas stations, convenience stores, and health food stores?
         Ginseng is 2 (maybe 3) closely related species of Panax. The oriental ginseng species, Panax ginseng, is mirrored by the eastern North American ginseng, P. quinquefolius.
         With my botanical background, I thought this would be a moderately interesting read. What a pleasant surprise! Ginseng has a much more fascinating history than I had ever imagined. It has had a much more significant economic role in the exploration, exploitation, evolution and development of eastern North American than I would ever have guessed. (Okay, I’m historically naïve.) And beyond the hype there are even some measurable effects in the use of ginseng. In the course of reading this book we learn something about Chinese medicine, more about chi/qi — yin and yang. So you won’t be in suspense — who knew that Asian/Chinese ginseng is yang and North American ginseng is yin? (Okay, I’m also spiritually naïve.)
         The relaxed style of writing makes Ginseng, the Divine Root easy to read. The author frequently juxtaposes academic research with personal interviews with descriptions of field experiences — a nice mix. While not quite the page-turner of a Ludlum adventure, this book is crammed with an immense amount of information. There is a list of sources for each chapter if you want to delve further.
         I have two quibbles with the book. First, the title, Ginseng, the Divine Root. I don’t think the divinity of the root was explored, implied or demonstrated in any way. The religiously inclined will be disappointed, and the spiritually oriented probably know its purported properties already. Clearly this was a marketing ploy. But why not be honest with a titillating title like Ginseng, the Dark Underbelly of the Herbal Trade or Darkest Secrets of Collecting, Trading and Growing Ginseng?
         Second, a few illustrations could have been included, at least of the plant in its various guises and forms. What does a very old root really look like? What do those prongs and rings look like that are used for determining a root’s age? What are the differences in all those grades of ginseng. Can I see the difference between P. ginseng and P. quinquefolius, between wild and cultivated ginseng, etc. While the dust jacket gives us a glimpse of ginseng (the graphics obscure who knows what and the jacket won’t be with the book for the long term) there is a poor sketch on the title page. Given all the time and energy which apparently went into this very good book, why miss the obvious addition of illustrations, which would have made this an excellent book? We are too visually oriented these days to depend solely on the printed word. What’s the old saying about the worth of a picture?
         With these two caveats, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone. I think it would be especially valuable to those interested in history, economics, trade, endangered species, medicine, law enforcement, etc. This is a book about the infinite interconnections of events through time — “the curious history of the plant that captivated the world.”

    Wayne Handlos obtained his Ph.D. in plant taxonomy at Cornell University and is deeply involved with the International Geranium Society in California where he now lives. He has written about African ecology in various books, wrote a garden column for newspapers in Minnesota, now edits a monthly newsletter and once collected Panax trifolius for a Russian researcher.