The widely varied family includes also the dwarf ginseng (P. trifolium) of North America; the English ivy (Hedera helix), a popular ornamental evergreen vine; the Hercules'-club, devil's-club, or devil's-walking-stick (names applied to several related species) of North America and E Asia, used locally for medicinal purposes; and the rice-paper plant (Tetrapanax papyriferus) of China, the pith of which is used to make Chinese rice paper. Native American species of this family include the wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) and the American, or wild, spikenard (A. racemosa). The names sarsaparilla and spikenard are applied also to plants of other families.
Ginseng is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Apiales, family Araliaceae.
Ginseng refers to species within Panax, a genus of 11 species of slow-growing perennial plants with fleshy roots, in the family Araliaceae. They grow in the Northern Hemisphere in eastern Asia (mostly northern China, Korea, and eastern Siberia), typically in cooler climates; Panax vietnamensis, discovered in Vietnam, is the southernmost ginseng found. This article focuses on the Series Panax ginsengs, which are the adaptogenic herbs, principally Panax ginseng and P. quinquefolius. Ginseng is characterized by the presence of ginsenosides.
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is not a true ginseng at all. It is another adaptogen, but a different plant that was renamed as "Siberian ginseng" as a marketing ploy; instead of a fleshy root, it has a woody root; instead of ginsenosides, eleutherosides are present, (see below).
The botanical/genus name Panax means "all-heal" in Greek, sharing the same origin as "panacea," and was applied to this genus because Linnaeus was aware of its wide use in Chinese medicine as a muscle relaxant.
This ingredient may also be found in some popular Energy Drinks: usually the "tea" varieties or Functional Foods. Usually ginseng is in subclinical doses and it does not have measurable medicinal effects. It can be found in cosmetic preparations as well, with similar lack of effect.
Ginseng root can be double steamed with chicken meat as a soup. (See samgyetang.)
Ginseng is promoted as an adaptogen (a product that increases the body's resistance to stress), one which can to a certain extent be supported with reference to its anticarcinogenic and antioxidant properties, although animal experiments to determine whether longevity and health were increased in the presence of stress gave negative results.
A comparative, randomized and double-blind study at the National Autonomous University of Mexico indicates it may be "a promising dietary supplement" when assessed for an increase in quality of life . It should be noted, however, that exclusion rates in this study were high. 124 participants were excluded from this study "due to lack of compliance with the treatment" whereas 164 participants in the control group and 338 participants in the ginseng group completed the study.
P. ginseng appear to inhibit some characteristics associated with cancer in animal models; nevertheless, this effect is unclear in humans.
There are references in literature, including authoritative compendiums, that show interactions with ginseng. Herbalist Jonathan Treasure of the United States National Institute of Mental Health traces the growth of misinformation on an alleged adverse herb-drug interaction between the monoamine oxidase inhibitor phenelzine and Asian ginseng (P. ginseng C.A. Meyer). This originally was mentioned in a 1985 editorial by Shader and Greenblatt in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology. Shader and Greenblatt devoted a couple of lines to the case of 64 year-old woman who took an undisclosed dose for an undisclosed time of a dietary supplement product called “Natrol High” while concurrently taking phenelzine 60 mg qd. She experienced symptoms of “insomnia, headache, and tremulousness”. Treasure contacted Natrol by email and discovered within ten minutes that there was no P. ginseng in the formula, but instead Eleutherococcus which was then called by the popular name "Siberian ginseng" and it was given in a subclinical dosage mixed with a variety of other herbs. The purported interaction effects are well-known side effects of phenelzine alone, which had been given in a high dosage and are not at all suggestive of Eleutherococcus. However this misinformed article with a misidentified herb has been picked up in literature searches, megastudies and is now documented by conventional medical authorities such as Stockley’s, and is repeated in several botanical monographs e.g. World Health Organization (WHO 1999).
Ginseng is known to contain phytoestrogens.
P. ginseng is not recommended within Chinese Medicine to be administered along with anti-infective herbs unless a person is quite debilitated, because of the fear that the pathogen will be tonified. Herbalists in China believed this and according to Xu Dachun in his brief essay on ginseng (1757 A.D., during the Qing Dynasty): "if one administers Ginseng of a purely supplementing nature, then one will merely supplement the evil influences and help them settle down. In minor cases, the evil influences will, as a result of such mistaken therapy, never leave the body again. In serious cases, death is inevitable.
The treasured aromatic root resembles a small parsnip that forks as it matures. The plant grows 6 to 18 inches tall, usually bearing three leaves, each with three to five leaflets 2 to 5 inches long.
Red ginseng (Korean=홍삼, ), is P. ginseng that has been heated, either through steaming or sun-drying. It is frequently marinated in an herbal brew which results in the root becoming extremely brittle. This version of ginseng is traditionally associated with stimulating sexual function and increasing energy. Red ginseng is always produced from cultivated roots, usually from either China or South Korea.
A study shows that Red ginseng reduces the relapse of gastric cancer versus control.
A study of ginseng's effects on rats shows that while both White ginseng and Red ginseng reduce the incidence of cancer, the effects appear to be greater with Red ginseng.
Falcarinol, a seventeen-carbon diyne fatty alcohol was isolated from carrot and red ginseng, shown to have potent anticancer properties on primary mammary epithelial (breast cancer) cells. Other acetylenic fatty alcohols in ginseng (panaxacol, panaxydol, panaxytriol) have antibiotic properties.
There are woods grown American ginseng programs in Maine, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and West Virginia. and United Plant Savers has been encouraging the woods planting of ginseng both to restore natural habitats and to remove pressure from any remaining wild ginseng, and they offer both advice and sources of rootlets. Woods grown plants have comparable value to wild grown ginseng of similar age.
Other plants which are referred to as ginsengs may not be adaptogens (although notoginseng is in the Panax Series):