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JAMA 100 Years Ago
November 11, 1998


Author Affiliations

Edited by Brian Pace, MA, and Jennifer Reiling, Editorial Assistant.

JAMA. 1998;280(18):1552O. doi:10.1001/jama.280.18.1552

Ginseng in Korea.— Dr. Horace Allen, the United States Minister at Séoul, states that the Korean ginseng can not be regarded as inert, however correct the opinion may be of those medical writers who have reported the American root has no therapeutic power. The root is the panacea for most of the ills of the Chinese and Koreans, and has held this reputation for centuries. It is regarded by these people as a strong aphrodisiac. Quinin has been shown to be so much more efficacious in the frequent malarial fevers of these countries that ginseng has lost some of its popularity in these cases; but, wherever a tonic or a "heating medicine" is needed, ginseng continues to be resorted to, and by combination with quinin its reputation will be enhanced rather than diminished. It is supposed to owe its great popularity in China to its properties as an aphrodisiac. The district where much of the Korean root is grown is hilly or mountainous. The climate is much the same as that of the northern portions of our Central States, except that here there is a distinct rainy season, some forty inches of rain falling during July and August. It is possible that our summers may be too dry for the successful cultivation of this plant. Michigan would probably be the best place for making an attempt at the cultivation. Wild ginseng is supposed in Korea to possess almost magical properties. Such roots are usually kept for the royal family. The cultivated ginseng requires seven years to mature. It is raised in little plots of richly manured soil, well mixed with leaf mold. The beds are carefully covered by mats or other protection, raised sufficiently to allow of cultivation and of the free access of air, and care must be given to keep the plants moist and free from weeds. As there seems to be almost unlimited demand for this root in China, it might as well be produced, in all its excellence, in the United States if possible. The American and Korean ginseng roots differ in appearance; the American seems to be made up largely of fibrous roots called "beard," while the Korean root is more compact. The two are given different names by botanists. The Chinese plant is called Aralia schinseng, while the American is called Aralia quinquefolia. There is by some believed to be a difference in the effect produced by the use of these two roots. There is no market for the powdered root; the Chinaman who pays from a half-dollar to $100 for an ounce of ginseng, wants all his money's worth. The powder might be made of any similar root of no value. Ginseng, like wine, increases in value with age. The best ginseng has been growing for 100 to 200 years. The Korean ginseng is supposed to arrive at perfection after thirty years, although it is used after six years. This is one of the reasons why ginseng is so high-priced. I take it for granted that the American ginseng is wild, and so may be of any age, even more than a century old. The age is told by counting the rings on the center and side roots, or those parts resembling the torso and arms. Dr. Chung King-u, Imperial Medical College of Tientsin, resident surgeon of the Tung Wa Hospital at Hong-kong, the only hospital in China which is devoted to Chinese medical practice, but which is under the supervision of a Chinese physician versed in western medicine, states that in his experience he has failed to observe any definite results obtained by the use of ginseng. Its use among the Chinese is entirely empiric, and its efficacy depends upon the imagination of the patient.

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