Rooted in Love
Ginseng has been used in potions for centuries. Today, the mysterious plant, which is native to Ohio, remains a hot commodity.
One legend says wild ginseng screams when dug from the earth. Another claims that when placed in a glass jar and stored on a shelf, the roots twist their bodies to look at the person who imprisoned them. Still another suggests American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) can hide or change its location in the forest.
Fact and fantasy about the native Ohio plant are entwined like the thinnest strands of its bulbous root. Much of the mystique surrounding ginseng can be attributed to the fact that the plant can live more than half a century but doesn’t come up every year. When it does, it’s hard to locate.
“Unless you were taught by your father or grandfather what to look for, most people will walk right by it while hiking,” says ginseng expert Chip Carroll, a member of United Plant Savers, a nonprofit group that protects at-risk native medicinal plants in their natural habitats. The Goldenseal Sanctuary in Rutland Township, where Carroll serves as director of interns, visitors, trail maintenance and education, is affiliated with the organization.
“There’s a saying,” Carroll adds. “Ginseng will only reveal itself to those who are worthy of finding it.”
To find wild ginseng, one must venture deep into Ohio’s richest woodlands, where only narrow shafts of sunlight reach the forest floor. The plant grows 8- to 15-inches tall, and as it matures, it sprouts additional leaves and leaflets. The perennial herb’s greenish-white flowers and red berrylike fruit help identify it, but ginseng is often overshadowed by other plants in its habitat, such as goldenseal, poison ivy and Virginia creeper.
For centuries, men and women in China, Europe and North America have looked to the elusive ginseng root, which at times bears a strangely human resemblance, to spice up their love lives.The Native American Meskwaki women in the Great Lakes region turned to the plant to find husbands, and the Great Plains Pawnee used ginseng as a main ingredient in love potions, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These days ginseng root is eaten raw, baked into chocolate chip cookies, enjoyed as tea and chugged in energy drinks. But the claims of its aphrodisiacal qualities haven’t been lost to time.
Those who remember The Clovers’ 1959 pop hit “Love Potion No. 9” may be surprised to learn there’s an actual recipe for the song’s namesake concoction. One version of the potion calls for nine drops of red wine, nine rose petals, nine cloves and one ginseng root cut into nine equal pieces, plus a few other ingredients.
Aside from the romantic idea of love potions, ginseng seems to have health benefits, too. The Cleveland Clinic Wellness Division has said that American ginseng appears to be “promising for the treatment of cancer-related fatigue” and also identifies it as a safe and effective supplement for reducing the severity and duration of the common cold if it is taken before the cold starts.
As the desire for healing botanicals increases, so does the demand for ginseng. That’s good news for Ohio ginseng growers and dealers. Although the number of growers is hard to pinpoint because no license is required and many operate secretly, there are 46 ginseng dealers registered with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for 2013–2014.
“A lot of solid research shows that woodland products like ginseng are harvested more in harder economic times,” says Carroll, who helps educate Ohio farmers about the plant. “Some Ohio growers are seeing between $200 and several thousand dollars annually through the sale of ginseng. People often refer to ginseng as the bank account in the woods. If needed, it’s there.”
According to Melissa Moser, permit coordinator and researcher with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife, 2013 was a stellar year for ginseng.
“The price is up to $1,000 per pound,” Moser says, adding that official figures collected via information that harvesters provide to dealers show that 2,638 pounds of ginseng were collected in Ohio during 2012. “Perry, Pike and Adams counties had the largest amounts of ginseng harvested in the state.”
But before anyone heads out to the woods with a shovel, be forewarned. Ginseng is protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora as a species that needs to be safeguarded. “Ginseng is on the list with elephant ivory, black bear gall bladders and great apes,” says Carroll, who grows his own acre of ginseng in southeast Ohio.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also oversees state regulatory agencies that monitor ginseng, including the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife. “[Officials] look at ginseng almost more like a wild animal than a plant,” says Carroll.
Laws regarding the harvesting, selling and buying of ginseng are tough and complex. But basically, no harvesting is allowed on public lands, although digging in Wayne National Forest is allowed with a paid permit. Also, a ginseng plant must have three prongs, or stems, to be harvested, which can only be done in Ohio from Sept. 1 through Dec. 31.
Carroll says the best way to obtain high-quality ginseng is to grow it yourself in small patches, but the plant takes 10 years or more to mature. It can also be purchased from a certified dealer. (A list of dealers and regulations surrounding ginseng are available at ohiodnr.com.)
Ginseng can be cultivated in artificial shade created by canopies and outdoors in areas that simulate wild growing conditions, but smaller, wild-grown roots are the most valuable.
About 99 percent of Ohio’s ginseng harvest is consumed in China, according to Carroll. “Most of our best goes there,” he says, adding that what is often found in American health food stores is artificially grown under cloth in Canada or Wisconsin, requiring those interested in buying the mysterious root to do their research.
“There has to be a lot more education for consumers,” Carroll says. “Ginseng is a fascinating and important plant. One in five people on the planet hold ginseng in high esteem or use it.”
Perhaps the easiest way to enjoy ginseng is by making tea, just be sure to consult with your doctor to make sure it won’t react with medications you’re taking. “I find ginseng tea to have a pleasant taste when not made too strong,” says Melissa Moser, permit coordinator and researcher for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife. To find Ohio-grown ginseng, consult the ODNR’s list of registered dealers on its website. For tea by the cup, slice fresh ginseng root into shavings. Place one tablespoon of shavings into a paper tea bag used to hold loose tea. Pour hot water into a cup and add bag. Steep for five minutes. If desired, add honey, peppermint or spearmint leaves, maple syrup, blackstrap molasses, cinnamon, stevia or a few drops of orange juice.