Panax ginseng C. A. Meyer

The Oriental people traditionally use ginseng (Panax ginseng C. A. Meyer) roots and extracts for geriatric, tonic, stomachic, and aphrodisiac treatment. Brekhman and Dardymov reported the plant to possess anabolic, adaptogenic, anti-stress, hypothermic, central nervous system stimulation, radio-protective, antibiotic, minor hyperglycemic, and anticancer activity. The Korean workers Oh et al. and Hong et al. have reported that in mice the saponin fractions potentiate nembutal hypnosis, retard the onset of cocaine-induced convulsions, reduce body temperature, and enhance sexual behavior.

Distribution and Importance of Ginseng

Ginseng is a perennial herb with fleshy roots, an annual stem bearing a whorl of palmate compound leaves and a terminal simple umbel. In the over-populated regions of the natural range of ginseng in Eastern Asia, forests were destroyed, and ginseng was exterminated with the trees. However, in the less populated areas of higher altitudes and also of higher latitudes, different species of ginseng still grow, from the Eastern Himalayan region to Korea, Chinese Northeast, and Russian Far East. The commercially important species at present is Panax ginseng C.A. Meyer, which is grown in areas of 30-48 north latitude such as Korea, China, the Soviet Union, etc. Ginseng is regarded as a specialty of Korea, because Korea has the right conditions for its cultivation and the Koreans have domesticated it. The major portion of the market material is produced in ginseng farms.

Ginseng has been recognized as a miraculous medicine in preserving health and longevity. The demand for the plant has increased dramatically in the world, and the price of this material has soared.

Conventional Practices for Propagation

The aerial portion of the ginseng plant dies annually. It consists of a single stem about 20-60 cm high and multi-stem plants are, occasionally, observed. In general, ginseng plants begin to flower at the age of 3 or 4 years. A flowering plant may bear from 3 to 7 leaves in a whorl and with a peduncle terminated by a simple umbel at the center. The peduncle bears a terminal umbel with 10 to 80 flowers, according to the age of the plant and its growing condition.

Ginseng flowers in the middle of May. It is general practice to collect the seeds once from 4-year old plants, and the flower buds are nipped off for better growth of the roots. The ripe red fruits are gathered two or three times in the middle of July. The mature fruits contain two or three white-yellow seeds. It is believed that the berries that fall on the ground naturally are the most desirable for propagation. The ginseng seeds must be stratified with fine sand to promote embryo growth artificially because the embryo is immature when the seed is gathered. The optimum season for sowing on the nursery bed is early in November. In general, the seedlings grown on the nursery bed are transplanted in late March and early April, and harvested 3 to 5 years after transplanting the seedlings, that is, 4- or 6-year old roots are harvested.

Medicinal Components of Ginseng

The chemical, biochemical, and pharmacological studies of the glycosidic components of the dammarane series have shown that these components are the major active principles of ginseng that have been generally experienced indigenously. It has also been proved that they are genuine components of ginseng, and now studies of ginseng are concentrated on these effective components. Glycoside groups containing protopanaxadiol or protopanaxatriol as genuine aglycone are called dammarane triterpene glycosides. Three series of triterpene glycosides (saponin) have been isolated from total saponin – panaxadiol, panaxatriol, and oleanolic acid. Panaxadiol, panaxatriol, β-sitosterol, and oleanolic acid are known to be aglycones of ginseng glycosides. Saponins usually exist in plants in the form of glycosides but the distribution of dammarane-type triterpenes such as ginseng panaxadiol and panaxatriol appears restricted to the genus Panax.

Shibata et al. developed the ginseng saponin component by chromatography and in increasing order of Rf value, ginsenosides Rx were named. Other than saponins, ginseng contains many substances, phytosterols, oils, acids, carbohydrates, flavonoids, nitrogen-containing compounds, vitamins, and inorganics.

Demand on the World Market

Ginseng has traditionally been considered a medicinal plant of mysterious powers. In China, Japan, and Korea especially, ginseng has always been recognized as the most prized medicine among all herbal medicines. Since Garriques of the U.S.A. started his first scientific study of ginseng in 1854, research has been actively conducted not only on ginseng components and pharmacology but also on its breeding, cultivation, manufacturing methods, and clinical use. As a result of this intensive research, the mystery of ginseng is slowly being unveiled, enabling this precious medicine to be identified scientifically. From pharmacological studies of animals and human beings for more than 20 years, the efficacy of ginseng, especially tonic effects, has been gradually proved. The term “tonic” refers to a drug intended to maintain normal physical tone or restore a diseased state to normal. Ginseng has been known to have a tonic effect and it is the general opinion of many investigators that ginseng has the effect of normalization of physical conditions, that is, maintaining individual homeostasis.

Industrial pollution has many harmful effects. For self-protection people all over the world are seeking new and safer foods and natural medicines, and the demand for ginseng has rapidly increased. Evidently the value of ginseng has shifted from one of local significance to one of international importance.

The majority of the consumers of ginseng are in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and other areas where there are Chinese descendants, such as Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Here ginseng is used in the root form, red or white ginseng, and ginseng products such as ginseng tea, ginseng extract, ginseng capsule, ginseng powder, etc.

Medicinal and Aromatic Plants I (1988)