Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/August 1891/Ginseng in Commerce



IT is curious that, after the lapse of over a century and a half, the old Canadian industry of gathering, drying, and exporting ginseng should be revived. This root was one of the first articles exported from Canada after the Treaty of Utrecht, and for a time was considered hardly less important in commerce than fur. The revival of the industry is due to the demand for ginseng among Chinese, who have become a no inconsiderable element in the the population of the United States, whither the most, if not all, of what is now exported finds its way.

The ginseng of commerce is the fleshy root of a perennial herb, formerly called Panax quinquefolium, but now placed among the dicotyledonous Araliaceæ. The Chinese ginseng is probably derived from another species of the same genus. It is a native of the Middle and Northern States and Canada, but is found far south on the mountains. It grows in rich soil, in shaded situations, and has a fleshy root from four to nine inches long, which throws up a simple stem about a foot high, bearing at the top three long-petioled leaves, each of which has five divisions. The stem terminates in a small umbel of inconspicuous greenish-white flowers, which are succeeded by a small, berry-like red fruit. It has a peculiar and rather pleasant smell, and a sweet, somewhat Ginseng (Aralia quinquefolia). pungent, aromatic taste. According to the Chinese, the root nourishes and strengthens the body, checks vomiting, removes hypochondriasis and other nervous affections, gives a vigorous tone to the system, even in old age, and is, in short, a panacea for all the ills to which flesh is heir. European and American doctors consider it almost worthless as a remedy, though it is sometimes used as a domestic medicine in the States west of the Alleghanies. Panax frudicosus and Panax cochleatus, plants somewhat akin to ginseng, are fragrant aromatics, which grow in the Moluccas, and are used by the native practitioners of India. With such unbounded faith in its beneficial effect both on body and mind, what wonder that the discovery that stores of ginseng are yet to be found in Canada should have created a demand among the Celestial population on this continent, and that the industry of digging and preparing it for market should have assumed very considerable proportions!

As already stated, the trade in ginseng is a revival of one that formerly existed. In the autumn of 1716 Père Joseph François Lafitan, a Jesuit father, who had arrived in the country in 1712, and was stationed at the Sault, above Montreal, discovered the plant. He had been in Quebec in 1715, and there saw a letter of Père Jartoux, who had seen ginseng in Tartary in 1709, and who gave a description of it. Lafitan inquired about it from the Indians, and examined the country to find it. At this time it was worth its weight in gold at Pekin. A company was formed to export it to China, Japan, and Tartary. The price at Quebec was from thirty to forty sous or cents per pound. At first any one was allowed to sell it, but as its value increased the company exercised its monopoly rights, and in 1751 undertook to exclude all others from the trade. As the demand increased, the care with which it was obtained and prepared was relaxed. It was gathered out of season, and imperfectly dried in stove-ovens. Even in this state it brought twenty-five livres per pound. In 1752 ginseng of this character to the value of five hundred thousand livres was exported. In 1754 the value of the export had fallen to thirty-three thousand livres. A quantity sent to La Rochelle remained unsold, but finally found its way to China, where its inferior quality gave the Canadian article a bad reputation; the demand fell off, and the export ceased. When the trade was at its height it was considered more profitable to gather ginseng than to cultivate the farm, and agriculture was almost entirely neglected. The result was, that the plant almost entirely disappeared. It came to be a proverb among the people, when speaking of some matter that had failed, "C'est tombé comme le ginseng."[1]

The revival of the trade has caused great activity in the search for the plant throughout the country back of Kingston, where it is said to abound. The profits on it are stated to be four hundred per cent, and one druggist there cleared three thousand dollars in one deal. The average wholesale price is one dollar per pound, the retail price five dollars. If the trade is to be preserved, care will have to be taken to prepare the root properly and not dig it up indiscriminately, as the root does not reach any great size in one season, but takes years to develop. In the desire to participate in the profits of the trade, some curious mistakes have been made. One man, who thought he had a rich find in Manitoba, discovered, after buying several tons, that he had not the right article. Many have confused gentian with ginseng, and, on testing the root of the former, have wondered why the Chinese were so fond of the latter.

The Chinese word gen-seng, and the Iroquois word garent-oquen, the Indian name of the plant, both mean "a man's thigh," and have doubtless been applied because of a supposed resemblance of the root to that part of the human body. This coincidence Père Lafitan could not consider fortuitous, and upon it he based an argument that America had once been joined to Asia, and that the Indian population of the former had originally come from the latter before the continents were severed at Bering Strait. The accompanying figure gives a general idea of the appearance of the plant.

Experiments were made last year by Signor Tacchini, at Rome, on the influence of passing wagons, etc., on the seismological instruments in the tower of the college, forty metres above the level of the city. The oscillations produced by the marching of a regiment of soldiers, 150 metres away, were registered by the apparatus. The result both shows the sensitiveness of the instruments and illustrates the necessity of placing geodynamic observatories as far as possible from any disturbing agencies.
  1. It has gone down like ginseng.