American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) has linked the Appalachian Mountain region to China since the 1700s. George Washington and Daniel Boone both purportedly supplemented their income with this most lucrative of medicinal plants. Hunted in the wild in the fall, it has provided Christmas present money to families from New York to Georgia for generations.
Now a protected species, due to a number of factors not the least of which is poaching, wild American ginseng is extensively monitored and studied by conservation biologists. It also provides livelihood to hundreds of farmers in Marathon County, Wisconsin, who have been successfully cultivating it under shade structures since the mid-1900s.
What is so special about American ginseng, causing the wild root to fetch hundreds of dollars a pound? For one, the shape of the root resembles a small human. The name is even derived from the Chinese word for “human root.” According to tradition, the specific shape of a medicinal plant determines the ailments it can treat. Termed the “doctrine of signatures,” this phenomenon does not hold weight with most scientists. Even still, ginseng has been in high demand for centuries among Chinese herbal medicine practitioners, who believe it to be a panacea, treating everything from respiratory illnesses to exhaustion.
Tea made from ginseng is touted by many to boost your energy. And who doesn’t need extra energy to make it through the holidays? Brew yourself up some tasty spiced tea with this recipe, adapted from an iced tea recipe from Food & Wine Magazine. It has an earthy taste with a slight bitterness but brightened up by the spices and citrus. Even with no caffeine, it’s a natural pick-me-up, sort of like a Chinese version of chai. The ginseng tea bags can be found in many Asian groceries and health food stores or ordered online.
Spiced Ginseng Tea
4 cups of boiling water
4 green cardamom pods, crushed
3 whole cloves
1 inch of peeled fresh ginger
2 pieces dried orange peel
5 cinnamon sticks
4 ginseng tea bags
2 tablespoons honey
Place all ingredients except four of the cinnamon sticks into a large measuring cup or teapot. Let steep for 10 minutes or until fragrant. Place one cinnamon stick into each of four mugs (glass would be prettiest), and pour the tea into the mugs, straining out whole spices as necessary. Enjoy!
Betty Belanus is a curator and education specialist at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is delving into the history and traditions of American ginseng as the subject of a Smithsonian Folklife Festival program for 2020.