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What everything is called ginseng

Ginseng is a name of a botanical genus Panax of the Araliaceae family. In a narrow sense, the term ginseng as an equivalent of the Chinese word řén-šēn (řénšēn, more about ginseng etymology) refers only to true ginseng (Panax ginseng) or products made of it.

Botanical species of the genus Ginseng (Panax)

Among the best-known botanical species of the genus Panax are:

  • True ginseng (Panax ginseng C.A. Mey)
  • American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius); literally ‘five-leaved ginseng’
  • Japanese ginseng (Panax japonicus C.A.Mey)
  • Vietnamese ginseng (Panax vietnamensis Ha et Grushv)
  • three-leaved ginseng (Panax trifolius L.)
  • pseudoinseng (Panax pseudoginseng Wall.)
  • notoginseng (Panax notoginseng (Burkill) F.H.Chen)

All species of the genus Panax are phytochemically interrelated and their biochemical profile is characterized by typical, unique steroidal saponins (panaxoides or ginsenoides). Even in the Araliaceae family, there are no other genera phytochemically comparable to ginseng (davydov2000es).

Different forms of true ginseng (Panax ginseng)

Other adjectives, occuring with the word ginseng, distinguish different kinds of true ginseng ...

…by country or origin:

  • Korean ginseng — true ginseng (P. ginseng) either grown in Korea, or (more often) grown in China under Korean supervision
  • Manchurian ginseng — true ginseng (P. ginseng) from Manchuria
  • Chinese ginseng — refers primarily to true ginseng (P. ginseng) from China, although confusion could arise with Panax sinensis J. Wen, which grows in Zhejiang province and whose taxonomical position as a species has been practially confirmed by now.

…by the processing method:

  • Red ginseng (ginseng radix rubra) — prepared by steaming and drying the root of true ginseng (P. ginseng; equivalent drug of American ginseng (P. quinquefolius) would be panacis quinquefolii radix rubra.
  • White ginseng (ginseng radix alba) — prepared by sun-drying the root of true ginseng (P. ginseng); equivalent drug of American ginseng (P. quinquefolius) would be panacis quinquefolii radix alba.

… or by other details: by age (three-year-old ginseng, six-year-old ginseng, n-year-old), by form (straight ginseng, curved ginseng, branched ginseng)

All of these attributes usually relate to the botanical species of true ginseng (P. ginseng).

Misuse of the word “ginseng” for labeling unrelated plants

Unfortunately it became a common practice among the sellers all over the world to label various, mostly totally unrelated plants with (or even without) adaptogenic properties as ginseng:

  • Siberian ginseng — improper use of the word ginseng for Eleutherococcus (Eleutherococcus senticosus), which, although belonging to the same family (Araliaceae) as ginseng, has completely unrelated phytochemical profile.
  • Alaskan ginseng — improper use of the word ginseng for Devil's Club (Oplopanax horridus).
  • Indian ginseng — improper use of the word ginseng for Winter Cherry (Withania somnifera). The term ‘Indian ginseng’ is also found in Indian scientific literature.
  • Brasilian ginseng — improper use of the word ginseng for suma root (Pfaffia paniculata).
  • Peruvian ginseng — improper use of the word ginseng for maca (Lepidium meyenii).
  • Malaysian ginseng — improper use of the word ginseng for the small tree tongkat ali or pasak bumi (Eurycoma longifolia), also known as ‘Long Jack’.
  • Southern ginseng or Five-leaved ginseng, even with ® symbol, as improper use of the word ginseng for jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum (Thunb.) Makino). There is perhaps an intentional confusion with American ginseng, whose scientific name Panax quinquefolius literally means 'five-leaved ginseng'.
  • Female ginseng — alternative name for dong quai (Angelica sinensis).
  • Poor man’s ginseng — alternative name for dang shen (Codonopsis pilosula).
  • "Home ginseng" — alternative name for caltrop (Tribulus terrestris L.) or and basket plant (Callisia fragrans (Lindl.) Woodson).

This list is not complete, and never can be, as sellers' creativity in inventing new "ginsengs" knows no bounds (davydov2000es). This creation of new "ginsengs" has purely commercial reasons and it is not bontanically justifiable even for "Siberian ginseng" (Eleutherococcus senticosus) which, out of all unreal ginsengs, is the closest relative to Panax genus.

Even if one tried label these unreal ginsengs as false, confusion might arise with Panax pseudoginseng, whose species name literally means 'false ginseng', in spite of being a legitimate, effective, panaxosides containing member of the genus Panax. Apparently, Nathan ben Wulff who named it pseudoginseng didn't imagine, how far would the traders go in mining the good reputation of the word ginseng :-)

Labeling of unrelated adaptogens as ‘ginseng’ ultimately damages their own reputation

As the good German philosopher says, defending something with false arguments is among the best ways to harm it. Eleutherococcus, winter cherry, suma, maca, dang shen and others are all interesting and effective adaptogens, although their chemical composition is totally different from ginseng. The only plant known to contain panaxoides outside the Araliaceae family is jiaogulan, Gynostemma pentaphyllum. However, jiaogulan, eleutherococcus and various other adaptogens are not interchangeable with ginseng and also do not need to look up to ginseng like to an older brother. In the long run, it would be much wiser to emphasize the special qualities unique to each adaptogen, rather than labeling them as ‘weaker ginseng’.

Ginseng taxonomy

Phylogenetic tree of the genus Panax
Phylogenetic tree of the genus Panax

Difficult taxonomy is typical for botany, and the same was the case with ginseng. Various botanists have made dozens attempts to add new species to the ginseng genus, most of which were either reverted or moved to other genera (Eleutherococcus, Neopanax, Polyscias...). GRIN taxonomy, from where this information comes, lists 12 existing species in the genus Panax and 14 valid species in the genus Eleutherococcus. Some order in the genus Panax was established only by molecular taxonomy. By analysis of ribosomal DNA (wen1996pbp), family tree of 13 Panax species was established (P. bipinnatifidus Seem., P. omeiensis J. Wen, P. wangianus Sun, P. zingiberensis C. Y. Wu et K. M. Feng, P. major Ting, P. ginseng C. A. Mey, P. japonicus C. A. Mey, P. quinquefolius L., P. sinensis J. Wen, P. notoginseng (Burkill) F. H. Chen, P. stipuleanatus H. T. Tsai et K. M. Feng, P. pseudoginseng Wall. and P. trifolius L.).

Today, apart from possible finding of new species, in the genus Panax we can expect perhaps only division of Panax bipinnatifidus into two species, as indicated by molecular taxonomy. Genetic analysis of Eleutherococcus still remains to be done.

Classification of ginseng in TCM

For traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), ginseng (Panax) as a botanical genus means very little. The Chinese term "Rén-shēn" is used exclusively for P. ginseng; other species of the genus Panax are named differently. This lukewarm attitude towards taxonomy is typical for TCM. Even different parts of the same ginseng plant can be classified into opposite categories – for example, ginseng root is "hot" (yang), while the flowers and leaves are "cold" (yin). However, in ginseng, such counterintuitive classification can surprisingly have its justification. This is because most of the ginseng effects result of not from one, but several mutually counter-acting active substances, whose mutual balance gives the resulting effect. A ginseng part with a slightly different ratio of ginsenoides may have different, or even opposite effect. I'm not making this up – among many references for this, let me mention a recent study from the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (sengupta2004may), which explains how ginseng can simultaneously have opposite effects on the same physiological system.

Uniqueness of substances contained in ginseng

Among ginsengs (Panax genus), ginseng saponins (panaxoides/ginsenosides) are very abundant. They are present even in the phylogenetically most outlying member of the genus, three-leaved ginseng (Panax trifolius), which was used by the Native Americans against cold (angelova2008rmp). Other genera of the Araliaceae family, mostly woody shrubs, are very different from ginseng as far as chemistry is concerned and can even be even toxic (such as ivy). Eleutherococcus is a bit of an exception: Although it does not contain ginseng saponins (panaxosides), it has certain adaptogenic properties, particularly on physical performance an immunity. Other notable plant of the aralia family, recently touted as "Alaskan ginseng", is Devil's Club (Oplopanax horridus). In its effects, Devil’s Club cannot be compared to ginseng and irresponsible harvesting could threaten Devil's Club population in nature.

Outside the Panax genus, there is only one other plant known to contain panaxoides in any appreciable amount – gynostemma from the Cucurbitaceae family. Dried gynostemma (Gynostemma pentaphyllum) contains around 2,4 % saponins (zhang1993amn). 25% of this amount are saponins identical to some ginseng saponins. So far, around 200 panaxosides have been described in the Panax genus, of which roughly 10 can be found in gynostemma (razmovskinaumovski2005cpg).


| 2008 - 23.7.2011