As we drove around southwest Korea on our road trip with Chang, we noticed large sloping fields covered with black shade cloth. Chang told us that this is Korean ginseng, and that it does best when protected with the shade cloth, as originally the ginseng plants grew wild in the forests and so were protected from the sun.
We are always interested in the plants and crops of other places as another window into their world and lives, so Chang found a suitable place to stop for us to get out and check out what real ginseng looks like when it’s growing. We ambled around for a while and were very happy, as this was a first for us.
Of course, we’ve heard of ginseng before, tasted ginseng tea, had ginseng candy, and noticed ginseng capsules in health food stores. But, we’d never seen the live plant. It’s not big, more like a small bush, with star-shaped leaves. They are planted in rows, and apparently the ginseng growers stagger the plants, as the optimal time to maturity for this deciduous perennial shrub is 6 years. That’s a long time to wait for a crop, but it’s the ideal time for full maturation size and pharmacologically active ingredients, according to the Korea Ginseng Corporation.
A few days later, at the Suwon market I saw ginseng roots for sale—-as it’s the roots that are the important part of the plant, not the leaves. It’s in the roots that the healthy components, called ginseng saponins, are found. They are not simple roots, like carrots for example, but have many smaller roots and “tentacles”.
Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) is native to Korea, although it is now grown in many countries and there are other varieties of ginseng. Apparently the best ginseng comes from Korea, as it has the ideal climate, soils, and cultivation technology, which has been handed down for many generations. Cultivation of Korean ginseng started about 1600 years ago by harvesting seeds from wild ginseng. Mass production of Korean ginseng for commercial purpose only began in the late 16th century. For centuries it’s been used as a herbal remedy, a tonic and healing herb, and is used by Chinese Medicine to cure nearly everything.
After harvest, its roots are heated and soaked in a liquid containing other herbs when they are processed—this causes them to turn red. Or, the fresh ginseng is steamed, which makes it turn red.
One of our Korean students gave us a gift of a thick Korean ginseng extract (looks a bit like really thick dark molasses), which my other Korean students assure me is “really healthy” and “really expensive!” I’ve tried it a couple of times, with a little diluted in hot water. It’s not unpleasant, but is very bitter, so needs honey to sweeten a bit. But, hey, if it helps in some way, why not?!
Fun facts about ginseng users;
Over the years, some notable figures have openly embraced the use of Korean ginseng to support natural health. A partial list includes French King Louis XIV (the “Sun King”), and French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Pope Paul II loved ginseng and made it popular around the Vatican. Russian novelist, Maxim Gorky, used ginseng while recovering from a smoking-related disease, and French president Mitterrand supposedly claimed that ginseng helped extend his life while living with cancer.
Even the British rock band, the Scorpions (not to be confused with the German heavy metal band of the same name), came to Korea and bought ginseng to help maintain their active lifestyle. And one of the world’s top models, British Naomi Campbell, said that one of her body care secrets is using Korean ginseng extract.