Ginseng: Cultivated vs Wild, A General Discussion
Ginseng: Cultivated vs Wild, A General Discussion
The vast majority of ginseng is cultivated in fields. Wild roots and half-wild, forest-grown roots exist on the market, but they are rarely used clinically because their expense is generally prohibitive. Most wild or half-wild roots are not put in prescriptions, but are rather framed for display or given as gifts. Eventually they are often sliced and eaten straight or may be soaked in alcohol and consumed over a prolonged period of time. By contrast, cultivated ginseng is typically consumed in normal Chinese herbal decoctions, medicinal soups, or simply on its own by cooking it in a double-boiler; it may also be taken directly as a powder or the whole roots can be soaked in alcohol.
Two ginseng processing techniques are predominant in the market and clinic, giving the choice of a red or white form. Sun-dried ginseng is white, while a steaming process before drying produces red ginseng. It is common for Chinese medical clinics to dispense white ginseng unless red is explicitly specified. White ginseng is comparatively mild, less warm in nature, and is better for patients with qi and yin vacuity. Red ginseng is warmer and is better for qi and yang vacuity. Red ginseng tends to be slightly more expensive but both forms have high and low quality products represented on the market. A large amount of the top quality cultivated ginseng is processed into the red form; very high-quality cultivated white ginseng also exists but it is less commonly seen. However, wild or half-wild roots are only used in the white form.
Field-cultivated ginseng is easily distinguished from wild or half-wild ginseng, but wild and half-wild forms are hard to tell apart. Truly wild ginseng arises on its own, most notably in the famous region of Chang Bai Shan, along the Chinese and North Korean border, as well as in several other prominent mountain areas in Northeastern China, Korea, and Russia. Wild roots can be very old and they are extremely valuable, but they are incredibly rare in the modern era. In fact, people often say that true wild ginseng is virtually non-existent now.
The only difference between ginseng grown from seed undisturbed in the wild (one of the main “half-wild” forms) and true wild ginseng is that the seeds of the former were scattered by humans, whereas the seeds of the latter arise through the vectors of nature, such as birds and other animals. Truly wild roots potentially achieve greater age and inspire legends, but at a minimum of several hundred dollars per roots, few can afford to use them, and the diminishing wild population cannot sustain its unbridled global popularity.
Half-wild ginseng comes in two main types: transplanted roots and roots grown from seed. Transplanted roots (known in Chinese as yi shan shen) are far more common, larger, and cheaper, though they are still quite expensive. They are generally first planted in gardens and are then transplanted into the forests, though they can also be harvested in an immature state in the wild and then transplanted into a protected forest area. Because the soil has been loosened and cleared of competing plants, the ginseng can slowly grow to a decent size (without chemicals or nutrients) over the course of 10 years or more.
Roots grown from seed in the wild are grown simply by planting seeds in the forests. Transplanted roots can achieve an average weight of about 6 grams in 10–12 years, but seed-grown roots often average only about 2 grams after 18–20 years of growth. The two can be differentiated by the appearance of their necks and root bodies.
Field-grown Asian ginseng is generally better when the roots are larger and older. It is typically harvested after 4–6 years, though 7-year or older roots are occasionally seen. On both red and white ginseng, abundant dense and clear horizontal striations generally indicate good quality when looking at whole roots, but the striations are not prominent on all good ginseng. More important is the fragrance when the ginseng is smelled or cooked, and the clarity and potency of the taste. In red ginseng especially, rings can be seen on the cross-section of root slices. These rings, known in Chinese as wen lu, can sometimes be seen on the bottom of whole roots that are of good quality. When the roots are sliced, the rings can be seen easily, and their clarity and quality affects the price of sliced red ginseng. Additionally, sliced roots with a consistently wide, round shape are of superior quality. Fragrance, taste, and effect are the most important factors; there should be no taste or smell of molasses and the ginseng flavor should be very clean.
White ginseng is often sulfured, and the non-sulfured or minimally sulfured cream-yellow colored roots are superior to highly sulfured, very white roots. The flavor should be clear when the root is consumed, and the roots should have a strong ginseng fragrance without a sulfuric odor. Large, dense, heavily striated roots are the best; Korean-grown white ginseng fetches a higher price on the market.
When assessing the quality of mountain ginseng, authenticity is of utmost importance. Half-wild roots are excellent in terms of quality and they represent a more sustainable approach ecologically, but they should be purchased at a reasonable price, not at the wild price. There is a detailed standard for the specification of wild ginseng that was issued by the Chinese government in 1980. Roots with a human-like shape are very expensive. As long as authenticity is ensured, the most important elements are the age of the roots, absence of mechanical damage or defects, good freshness and shape, round and clear striations, strong fragrance, and a sweet and somewhat bitter taste.
Watch out for “gong yi shen,” fake wild ginseng that is prepared
by crafting normal field-grown roots. It has two main types:
1) Freeze-dried crafted roots, which are typically very large, sold in
a big frame, and look quite impressive. They are generally sulfured
so they look rather white, and they typically have multiple “shoulder”
roots super-glued to the neck (basically whole small ginseng roots
posing as shoulder roots coming off the neck). The neck is overlarge
and close inspection reveals spots on the neck that are super glued
together. The freeze-drying makes the root look much larger than
normal sun-drying, which is also a dead giveaway. Plus, because the
root is field-grown, the fine rootlets tend to lack “pearl spots,” the
small protrusions off the rootlets that are characteristic of
forest-grown ginseng. This type of gong yi shen often also has round
striations cut into the body to simulate wild ginseng.
2) The other main type of gong yi shen consists of young mountain
roots that have been artificially crafted to look older. This is
typically done with super glue, joining older necks to the younger
ginseng root, sometimes with multiple necks glued together. Often a
few fake shoulder roots are glued onto the neck for good measure. The
striations are again artificially cut.
One can get some good looking gong yi shen for about 5 bucks if one
knows where to look, but it shouldn’t be eaten. It can be a good
wall decoration at best. Good visual examples abound on E-Bay; of course the prices are quite ridiculous but a search for “wild ginseng” on E-Bay will typically produce several examples of these fake roots, especially the large, freeze-dried types.
DONG YANG SHEN
Dong yang shen traditionally refers to Panax ginseng that is
grown in Japan, though now the dong yang shen processing technique is
also applied to Korean (and, to a lesser extent, Chinese) ginseng.
Dong yang shen is pre-boiled briefly as part of its pao zhi, and it
acquires a characteristic appearance of being whitish on the outside
and red on the inside. Dong yang shen tends not to produce heat, but
it is weaker than red ginseng. It is typically much more expensive than
white ginseng; good dong yang shen has a comparable price to good red ginseng.
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