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Table of Contents
Year : 2021  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 12-18

A survey of the history and applications of American ginseng (西洋参)

Department of Pharmacology, School of Pharmacy, Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shanghai 201203, China

Date of Submission14-Sep-2020
Date of Acceptance27-Oct-2020
Date of Web Publication31-Mar-2021

Correspondence Address:
Associate Prof. Yun- Shen
School of Pharmacy, Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shanghai 201203
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_41_20

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American ginseng (Panax Quinquefolium L), also known as Xi Yang Shen (西洋参 Radix Panacis Quinquefolii), is indigenous to the United States and Canada. Its discovery in the 1700s paved the way for international trade, which boosted the economy of the New World and helped build commercial ties between the US and China. Due to its therapeutic effects, the demand for American ginseng grew steadily, eventually causing the volume of wild ginseng to dwindle. As a result, laws and regulations were introduced requiring farmers and exporters to engage in harvesting practices that would preserve wild American ginseng. Nowadays, wild American ginseng is considered an endangered and protected species. This article discusses the history, properties, and applications of American ginseng to optimize its use and protection.

Keywords: Ginseng; Jean-François Lafitau; Pierre Jartoux; Ren Shen (人参 Radix Ginseng); the Qing dynasty; Xi Yang Shen (西洋参 Radix Panacis Quinquefolii)

How to cite this article:
Bahaji Azami NL, Yu Q, Shen Y. A survey of the history and applications of American ginseng (西洋参). Chin Med Cult 2021;4:12-8

How to cite this URL:
Bahaji Azami NL, Yu Q, Shen Y. A survey of the history and applications of American ginseng (西洋参). Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2021 [cited 2021 Oct 26];4:12-8. Available from: https://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2021/4/1/12/312776

  Introduction Top

In 1708, Kangxi, the Qing Emperor of China, commissioned Pierre Jartoux and other French missionaries to draw maps of the Chinese Empire. This led Jartoux and his companions to travel extensively to survey the land. As they neared China's border with the Kingdom of Korea, a local greeted them with a basket brimming with wild ginseng. Jartoux ate the raw ginseng root and instantly felt changes in his body. As he continued his travels, he was given the opportunity to learn different ways of consuming the herb, such as chewing ginseng leaves and drinking ginseng root decoction. He recorded this along with the benefits of consuming ginseng in a letter, which was later published in London in the scientific journal of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Jartoux's paper led to the discovery of American ginseng in North America and promoted trade with China. In fact, as China's own wild ginseng was becoming rare due to overharvesting, the demand for American ginseng soared, creating more international trade opportunities. For the first time, American ginseng was added to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) Materia Medica books, where it was named Xi Yang Shen (西洋参 Radix Panacis Quinquefolii). Doctors began to use American ginseng to supplement qi and nourish yin in patients with qi deficiency and deficiency heat, and sometimes as substitute for Asian ginseng when the patient's syndrome differentiation and constitution allowed it. Currently, American ginseng is still used in Chinese medicine as well as in skin care products for its anti-inflammatory and antiaging properties. It is also sold as a dietary supplement to promote overall well-being, boost energy, and improve cognitive abilities.

  History of American Ginseng Top


In 1711, a French Jesuit missionary Pierre Jartoux, who was residing in Beijing, China, wrote a letter to the Procurator General of the Missions of India and China to inform him about Asian ginseng. In his letter, he described the extraordinary effects, local uses, and ways of preparing this medicinal plant. Jartoux also documented his own experience ingesting Asian ginseng and the effect it had on him, stating that it helped him overcome fatigue, made him feel more vigorous, and increased his appetite. He observed that chewing the fibrous parts of ginseng leaves had almost the same therapeutic effect as ingesting decoctions of ginseng roots. Impressively enough, he even speculated that based on geographic similarities, ginseng could be found in other parts of the world such as Canada. His letter was published in London 2 years later, in the journal of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.[1]

After reading the published letter, another French Jesuit missionary, Joseph-François Lafitau, who happened to be staying in Canada with the Iroquois tribes showed Jartoux's drawing of Asian ginseng to the Mohawks and asked them if they had seen the plant [Figure 1]. Lafitau spent 3 months searching in the forests for ginseng until he found it and showed it to a Mohawk woman who helped him identify it. He learned from her that the herb was ordinary and was commonly used by the natives. Lafitau stated that he then told the Mohawk woman about the value and use of ginseng in China and that at the time of their conversation, the woman had been suffering from intermittent fever for months. After listening to him, she took a few ginseng roots and crushed them with two stones, soaked the crushed roots in cold water, and drank the water. The next day she was cured. After this incident, the Mohawk woman suffered from fever on two different occasions, at which time she repeated the treatment and was cured right away.[2] Her method of preparation to treat intermittent fever could possibly yield better therapeutic effects than slicing ginger roots and boiling them to make a decoction. Further scientific research is, however, warranted to verify this assumption.
Figure 1: Asian ginseng drawn by Pierre Jartoux

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In terms of American ginseng's local uses, the Iroquois explained to Lafitau that it was used as a purgative in infants and was not strong enough to be used as a purgative in adults; hence, they called American ginseng “medicine for children”. American ginseng was also used to stimulate the appetite and in combination with other herbs, to treat dysentery.[2]

As Lafitau learned that American ginseng could treat intermittent fever and could be used as a mild purgative, he sent the herb to a patient in France. The patient had been suffering from stomachache, intermittent fever, and insomnia for almost two years. Their condition was indeed alleviated after taking the roots for seven days. Furthermore, Lafitau tested American ginseng on himself and said that it cured his rheumatism. He also found that some people suffering from rheumatism, asthma, or chronic fever saw their condition improved after taking American ginseng whereas others did not see any improvements.[2]

In his opinion, American ginseng was more suitable for chronic fever than for acute fever and was more suitable for weak and old people than for people with what he called “vigorous temperament” or strong constitution. Interestingly, this could correspond to patients with qi deficiency and deficiency heat rather than excessive yang or hyperactivity of yang. It is worth mentioning that at the time of Lafitau, many European doctors doubted the efficacy of Asian and American ginseng. Lafitau himself wrote that he remained skeptical about the panacea effect of ginseng, and that he was not convinced by Jartoux's account regarding the extraordinary effects of ginseng, even though both he and Jartoux had tried it on themselves.[2]

Another point worth mentioning is that Lafitau explained that while ginseng was known in China as Ren Shen (人参 Radix Ginseng), which meant a man's thigh or leg, the Iroquois called it Garent-oguen. Garent meant the lower limbs of a man whereas ogen meant two separate things. It should be noted here that Lafitau's translation of Ren Shen (人参 Radix Ginseng) was not completely correct, as Ren means man or person, whereas the character “参” can be pronounced can or shen and had different meanings. Can could mean to join, participate in something, or refer to. Shen can be used in a surname and is also the name of the three stars mansion in the Chinese constellation system. When added in Ren Shen, shen roughly refers to “having good properties.” This character can also be seen in other TCM herbs such Dan Shen (丹参Radix Salviae Miltiorrhizae), Dang Shen (党参 Radix Codonopsis), and Nan Sha Shen (南沙参Radix Adenophorae).

After his return to France in 1718, Lafitau published a pamphlet narrating his discovery and describing the root and fruit of American ginseng to the Duke of Orleans. He also wrote that Asian ginseng was located in what was known at that time of the Qing dynasty as Chinese Tartary, between the 39th and 47th parallel north and a longitude between 10° and 20° counting from the Beijing meridian, on mountain slopes, and in thick forests, away from the sun. Based on this, he speculated that Flemish immigrants in New York could make a fortune if the ginseng roots were to be found there. Finally, Lafitau attempted to name American ginseng L'Aureliane du Canada, Aureliena Canadensis [Figure 2].[2] This name, however, was not adopted by botanists. Instead American ginseng was named Panax quinquefolius.
Figure 2: (a) Joseph-François Lafitau's portrait (b and c) drawings of American ginseng roots, as shown in his pamphlet

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Because Europeans lacked the information and experience the Chinese and native Americans had regarding the uses and benefits of ginseng, they praised the herb differently. This engendered a massive race to uproot as much wild American ginseng as possible and trade it with China. Had Europe and North America valued American ginseng the same way China did, one could only speculate that such trade would not have taken place, as the domestic demand for American ginseng would have exceeded the supply, leaving no room for export.

US-China trade

In 1776, the Continental Congress sent Benjamin Franklin to France to seek alliance and support from the French government as colonies in the New World were seeking independence from the British Empire. A treaty was signed 2 years later, and the French joined their American counterparts in the fight against the British army. After the victory of the US and the signing of the peace treaty with Britain in 1783 (to mark the end of the War of American Revolution), the US had to pay its debt to France and other countries, as well as become financially independent. One way to achieve these goals was to engage in trade. These conditions combined with the discovery of American ginseng on US soil precluded the US-China trade.

The first US ship to trade with China was The Empress of China, which left the harbor of New York for Canton (Guangzhou) in 1784. She was loaded with Spanish silver dollars, as well as 30 tons of wild Ginseng from Western Pennsylvania and Virginia. Robert Johnston, the ship's surgeon, had been assigned the task of procuring the 30 tons of wild ginseng, which he did over a period of 3 months, traveling to different mountains in the two aforementioned states.

The ship's captain was John Green, who, with his crew, sailed for 180 days before reaching Canton. Upon arrival, they discovered that many merchants from Canada were at the port to also trade ginseng roots. As the supply exceeded the demand, the price of ginseng went from $2,000/133 pounds (or 60.33 kg) to $200–300. Traders, therefore, earned less than expected. On her way back to America, The Empress of China transported black tea, silk, porcelain, and nankeen and still made a net profit from the voyage.[3]

The trade in wild ginseng with China continued for years, creating the first richest generation of Americans, which included Thomas H. Perkins and John Jacob Astor,[4] but at the same time, it brought wild American ginseng to the brink of extinction. As the output of wild ginseng declined, people begin to cultivate it.

  General Properties of American Ginseng Top

Traditional Chinese medicine properties and indications

American ginseng's value stems from its therapeutic benefits and properties. In TCM, the root is characterized as sweet, slightly bitter, and cool. It enters the lung, heart, and kidney channels. In addition, it can tonify Qi, nourish yin, and generate fluids, and is therefore more suitable for deficiency heat pattern. American ginseng is often prescribed for patients suffering from yin deficiency with chronic fatigue, thirst, and weakness, and it is given in the aftermath of chronic or febrile diseases to boost qi and replenish body fluids. Patients with lung yin deficiency causing lung fire and symptoms such as chronic wheezing, dry cough, and in some cases expectoration of blood-tinged sputum can use American ginseng.[5]

Pharmacological properties and indications

Several studies have shown the effects of American ginseng on the central nervous system, cardiovascular system, and immune system, among others. Similar to Asian ginseng, namely Ren Shen (人参 Radix Ginseng), American ginseng is a cardiotonic,[6] neuroprotective,[7] antioxidant,[8] and anti-inflammatory[9] herb. In addition, due to its ability to boost energy and increase stamina, studies have focused on investigating its effect on cancer-related fatigue in patients undergoing chemotherapy. Results have shown that it can relieve chronic fatigue and help patients tolerate cancer treatment better.[10] The main active compounds in American ginseng belong to the ginsenoside class. The exhaustive list of molecules in American ginseng can be retrieved from the TCM systems pharmacology database at https://tcmspw.com/tcmsp.php.

Side effects

American ginseng is generally safe; however, overuse of this herb may cause side effects such as insomnia, mania, high blood pressure, vomiting, diarrhea, vaginal bleeding, and breast pain. Patients using other drugs such as blood thinners or immunosuppressants should consult their physicians before taking ginseng to avoid side effects from drug interactions.[11] In TCM, American ginseng is contraindicated for patients with cold-dampness obstructing the middle jiao and patients with fire depression syndrome (火郁证).[5]

  American Ginseng In Classic Traditional Chinese Medicine Literature Top

The properties of American ginseng were first recorded by Wang Ang (汪昂) in his book Ben Cao Bei Yao (《本草备要》 Essentials of Materia Medica), which was published in 1694, during the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) [Figure 3]. Wang described American ginseng root as a cool bitter and sweet herb, with antipyretic properties. The herb can also tonify the lung and reduce internal heat.[12] The Essentials of Materia Medica, comprised of eight volumes, is mostly based on knowledge obtained from the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (《神农本草经》 Shennong's Classic of Materia Medica) and Li Shizhen's Ben Cao Gang Mu (《本草纲目》 Compendium of Materia Medica).
Figure 3: Table of contents and preface

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In the Ben Cao Cong Xing (《本草从新》 New Revised Materia Medica) written by Wu Yiluo (吴仪洛) in 1757, American ginseng and Zhu Zi Shen (珠子参 Panax Japonicus) have the same contraindications. Zhu Zi Shen (珠子参 Panax Japonicus), also called Zhu Shen (珠参), is a sweet, bitter, and slightly cold herb used to nourish lung yin, resolve stasis, and stop bleeding. In addition, the book confirms that American ginseng can supplement the lungs, reduce fire, and nourish body fluids.[13] The New Revised Materia Medica is comprised of 18 volumes and contains 720 medicines.

In the Ben Cao Gang Mu Shi Yi (《本草纲目拾遗》 Supplement to Compendium of Materia Medica) [Figure 4], Zhao Xuemin (赵学敏) described American ginseng root as yin tonifying and suitable for lethargic patients with deficiency heat. In addition, it can be used to treat blood in stool due to constipation, blood stasis, or toxic heat. For this, American ginseng root can be steamed and eaten with glutinous rice. Zhao even advised steaming the root a dozen times with rice or mixing it with Long Yan Rou (龙眼肉 Arillus Longan) before taking it. He cautioned readers not to use metal utensils in preparing and/or cooking American ginseng and not to stir-fry the herb with fire, as it can lose its medicinal properties. In addition, American ginseng root and Li Lu (藜芦 Veratrum Nigrum L) should not be taken together.[14] Li Lu (藜芦 Veratrum Nigrum L) is a cold, bitter, and extremely toxic herb with emetic and phlegm transforming properties. It is traditionally incompatible with Ren Shen (人参 Radix Ginseng) and Dang Shen (党参 Radix Codonopsis), among other herbs. The Supplement to Compendium of Materia Medica is considered a major classic in TCM as it added 726 new herbs and corrected a few errors that were present in the Compendium of Materia Medica.
Figure 4: The first page of Ben Cao Gan Mu Shi Yi (《本草纲目拾遗》 Supplement to Compendium of Materia Medica)

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In Zhang Xichun's (张锡纯) Yi Xue Zhong Zhong Can Xi Lu (《医学衷中参西录》 Integrating Chinese and Western Medicine), American ginseng root was described as a blood and Qi-tonifying herb. Zhang also noted to avoid adding Ren Shen (人参 Radix Ginseng) to Bai Hu Decoction (白虎汤) if the patient had a weak constitution. Instead Dang Shen (党参 Radix Codonopsis) should be added because Dang Shen (党参 Radix Codonopsis) has a stronger action and the ability to help Shi Gao (石膏 Gypsum Fibrosum) drive evil away.[15] Zhang divided his book into eight volumes and was known for advocating the reconciliation and combination of Chinese medicine and Western medicine to achieve the highest level of medical knowledge.

In the Zheng Ding Wei Yao Tiao Bian (《增订伪药条辨》 Revised and Expanded Catalogued Differentiation of Fake Medicine), compiled by Cao Bingzhang (曹炳章) in 1928 (Republic of China), it is indicated that if American ginseng root is given by mistake to deficiency cold patients, they will experience diarrhea as a side effect.[16] Revised and Expanded Catalogued Differentiation of Fake Medicine contains 110 medicines and adds content to the Wei Yao Tiao Bian (《伪药条辨》 Catalogued Differentiation of Fake Medicines), previously published by Zheng Fanyang in 1901 (Qing dynasty).

Finally, in the Ben Cao Yao Zheng (《本草药征》 Materia Medica) by Zhou Zhenxiang (周祯祥) (2018), American ginseng root is reported to penetrate the heart, lung, and kidney meridians. It is indicated for cough, asthma, dry mouth, dry throat, thirst caused by internal heat, and blood-tinged phlegm. It is also used in febrile diseases, in which the patient suffers from excessive sweating, lethargy, dyspnea, cough, asthma, thirst, internal heat, and blood-tinged phlegm. In stomach and spleen deficiency cold, it should be used with caution.[17]

  American Ginseng versus Asian Ginseng Top

The Herbal Medicine states that, in general American Ginseng root should be used in summer months while Asian Ginseng root should be used in the winter due to the difference of the properties between these two herbs. Asian ginseng root is warm and tonifying. It supplements the blood, calms the mind, and enhances intelligence. It is also suitable for treating heart restlessness due to qi and blood deficiency. American ginseng on the other hand has a cool nature and can nourish yin and clear internal heat. It is therefore more suitable for qi and yin deficiency pattern with internal heat.[17]

Asian ginseng was first recorded in the Shennong's Classic of Materia Medica. In this book, Asian ginseng is mentioned as growing on mountains and in valleys. Its actions include sharpening intelligence, brightening the eyes, treating fright and palpitation, calming the mind, and opening the heart orifices.[18] Asian ginseng is known to be sweet, slightly bitter, and warm. It enters the lung and spleen meridians and can tonify qi and revive patients from collapse. For patients with spleen and stomach deficiency, Li Shizhen (李时珍) prescribed Si Jun Zi Tang, which contains Asian ginseng, in the Compendium of Materia Medica.[19] In this formula, Asian ginseng acts as the monarch herb.

  Current Commercial Uses of American Ginseng Top

North America

Currently, in the US, a few different methods are used to grow ginseng for export, which are wild-stimulated, wood-grown, and field-grown methods. According to the Internal Affairs Department of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, both wild ginseng and wild-stimulated ginseng are exported as wild ginseng, whereas wood-grown and field-grown ginseng are exported as artificially propagated ginseng. Both wood-grown and field-grown methods use pesticides and fertilizers.[20]

Wild American ginseng is considered an endangered and protected species. Harvesting it is prohibited in many federal-owned lands such as national parks and forests. However, wild American ginseng and wild-simulated ginseng can be harvested at designated times of the year in 19 states including New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. In addition, to legally export wild ginseng or wild-stimulated ginseng, the plant must be at least 5 years old or have at least 3 leaves.[21] On the other hand, artificially grown American ginseng has no export restrictions and can be harvested anytime. Finally, to export any type of American ginseng, interested individuals and entities must apply for a permit from the US Fish and Wildlife Service bureau, in the US Department of the Interior, and pay a processing fee.[21] Despite all these regulations being put in place, wild American ginseng poachers are quite common and are often caught in national parks and on other federal lands. Illegally harvesting wild ginseng is punishable by law. The punishment entails a fine and/or a prison sentence for up to 6 months.

The laws in Canada regarding wild American ginseng are stricter than those in the US. For example, no wild American ginseng can be exported or traded or even harvested anywhere including federal lands.[22] Any individual in possession of wild American ginseng will be fined up to C$250,000 and sentenced up to 1 year in prison.[23] However, cultivated American ginseng can be traded and exported, but exporters must first apply for a Canadian Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora export permit.[22] Nevertheless, harvesting or selling cultivated American ginseng is prohibited and illegal in the province of Ontario. Farmers who want to harvest cultivated American ginseng in the region need to obtain a license from the Ontario Ginseng Growers Association and can only cultivate ginseng in designated areas. These farmers must not use any part of wild American ginseng to grow cultivated ginseng and they must use artificial shading to grow cultivated American ginseng.[22]

In general, American ginseng can be found in temperate forests from Quebec to Oklahoma and Georgia. Currently, the state of Wisconsin is the largest producer of American ginseng in the United States, whereas the Ontario Ginseng Growers Association, Canada is considered the world's largest producer.[24] Most American ginseng destined for export is shipped to Hong Kong.[25] As previously mentioned, many laws have been put in place to preserve the wild population of ginseng and to use sustainable harvesting methods. In the US, American ginseng and ginseng in general is not as popular as in Asian countries such as China and Korea. In fact, many people do not know about the history of this herb and the role it played in shaping the US economy over the past two centuries.

Our general impression is that the target population consuming ginseng remains limited to people seeking to boost their energy levels or improve their cognitive functions. In fact, athletes desiring to enhance their physical performance; patients seeking to alleviate disease-induced fatigue; students striving to improve their memory abilities; and consumers determined to use natural products that promote longevity and wellbeing will very likely consume ginseng supplements at some point of their life. Furthermore, the public understanding of different types of ginsengs (e.g. American, Chinese, Korean, and Siberian ginseng) as well as the difference in their pharmacological properties, uses, and benefits is also limited.

The majority of consumers will get American ginseng in the form of capsules and energy drinks, which include ginseng root extract, in addition to drops (tincture), tea bags, and sliced dried roots. One of the major companies selling American ginseng in the US is Prince of Peace, which was founded by Kenneth Yeung between 1983 and 1985 in San Francisco and which currently has two branch offices overseas, in Tianjin and Hong Kong. According to the company's website, Yeung was the first one to introduce American ginseng in teabag form to the market.[25]

When it comes to external use, American ginseng is included in some shampoos, soaps, as well as cosmetic products such as face moisturizers and lipsticks. The latter, however, are not widely distributed throughout the country and remain a niche product. However, products made with Asian ginseng such as face masks and cleansers can be found easily. Cosmetic products containing American ginseng or Asian ginseng are typically advertised as antiaging and rejuvenating.


Most imported American ginseng is used in TCM formulas and supplements. Another portion is used in cosmetic products. It is advertised as an antiaging herb that can also promote longevity. American ginseng is also grown in China, notably in Dongbei, Beijing, Xi'an, and Jiangxi.[26]

  Conclusion Top

Overall, the discovery of American ginseng shaped early international trade between North America and China. In addition, it promoted the consumption of American ginseng due to the herb's properties and health benefits. With the development of sustainable growing methods, American ginseng has great potential to be part of a more globalized market, with more countries benefiting from its medicinal and commercial uses.


This study was financed by grants from the project of Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine (No. 2019GJ170), International Cooperation Department, National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine (No. GZYYGJ2020003).

Conflicts of interest


  References Top

Jartoux P. The description of a tartarian plant, calld gin-seng; with an account of its virtues. In: A letter from Father Jartoux, to the Procurator General of the Missions of India and China. Taken from the tenth volume of letters of the Missionary Jesuits, printed in Paris in octavo. Vol. 28.  London: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London; 1713. p. 237-47. Available from: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rstl. 1713.0025. [Last accessed on 2020 Jul 23].  Back to cited text no. 1
Lafitau JA. Memoir presented to his royal highness Mgr. The Duke of Orleans,Regent of France: Concerning the precious plant of tartary gin-seng discovered in America by Father Joseph-François Lafitau, of the company of Jesus. missionary of the Iroquois of Sault St. Louis; 1858. Available from: https://archive.org/details/mmoireprsent00lafi/page/n11/mode/2up. [Last accessed on 2020 Jul 23].  Back to cited text no. 2
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