Ginseng: Facts and Folklore

The Chinese have used ginseng for thousands of years, believing that it ­enhances sexual performance, increases energy, and eases stress. Many Americans are skeptical, demanding scientific validation. Here are Eastern and Western perspectives on the herb that is purported to cure all.


  • Panax ginseng is available in many forms, several of which are shown at left. Counterclockwise, from the center: whole red ginseng root, with its humanlike shape; sliced red ginseng; ginseng tablets containing spirulina, a type of algae; a ginseng jar used to cook and soften the whole or sliced root; and small pieces of red ginseng root.
  • Compounds contained in white ginseng root, above, are extracted in a grain-­alcohol solution; other herbs are ­included to complement the active ­substances found in ginseng. Ginseng root courtesy of Dragon’s Light Herb Company, Denver, Colorado.
  • Ginseng may be taken as a tea or chewable slices.

Walk into an American convenience store these days, and you might find ginseng on the shelf—dark little vials of extract with bright labels selling for 99 cents a bottle. Whether the bottles contain more sugar than ginseng is a decision for the discriminating consumer to make, but ginseng’s presence on a quick-stop shelf is a sign of its growing popularity in the United States: sales of ginseng products totaled $10.8 million in this country in 1992, the latest year for which figures are available.

In China, where ginseng has been considered one of life’s necessities for millennia, millions of Chinese reach for the herb daily, believing that it will slow aging, enhance sexual prowess, and prevent disease. The strength of Chinese cultural belief in ginseng, however, is matched by the strength of Western skepticism. Different cultural perspectives and a relative scarcity of good, repeatable controlled studies of ginseng’s effects on the human body make it difficult for some Westerners to believe in its therapeutic value. So, who’s right?

The answer isn’t simple, but a summary of what is known about the herb, its history, and its performance in scientific studies may help you decide whether to reach for ginseng every day, use it only on occasion, or opt for something else.

The True Ginsengs

Ginsengs have been classified into two groups: true ginsengs and, for lack of a better term, the others. The others, including Eleutherococcus senticosus, are outside the scope of this article.



In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), true ginsengs are considered the most valuable and potent for lengthening life and promoting vitality. Botanists and herbalists know them as members of the genus Panax in the ginseng family (Araliaceae).

The generic name Panax is derived from the Greek pan, “all”, and akos, “cure”; however, the Chinese rarely use the herb alone to “cure” anything. Instead, it is an ingredient of hundreds of therapeutic herbal formulas. TCM practitioners use it to restore deficient qi (vital energy) and regulate body systems. In TCM, that makes ginseng a superior medicine because it is thought that the primary purpose of the healing arts is to restore balance and strength so that the body can heal itself.



Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 64% Off the Cover Price

Get the latest on Natural Health and Sustainable Living with Mother Earth News!

Mother Earth News

Your friends at Mother Earth Living are committed to natural health and sustainable living. Unfortunately, the financial impact of COVID-19 has challenged us to find a more economical way to achieve this mission. We welcome you to our sister publication Mother Earth News. What you sought in the pages of Mother Earth Living can be found in Mother Earth News. For over 50 years, “The Original Guide to Living Wisely” has focused on organic gardening, herbal medicine, real food recipes, and sustainability. We look forward to going on this new journey with you and providing solutions for better health and self-sufficiency.

The impact of this crisis has no doubt affected every aspect of our daily lives. We will strive to be a useful and inspiring resource during this critical time and for years to come.

Best wishes,
Your friends at Mother Earth Living and Mother Earth News

Save Money & a Few Trees!

By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of Mother Earth News for only $12.95 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.95 for 6 issues.

Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
International Subscribers - Click Here
Canadian subscriptions: 1 year (includes postage & GST).


Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter

Classifieds