Blog Post 153 – American Ginseng
Hello dedicated (and not abandoned!) readers!
This month, I’m going to be spending a lot of time looking at various botanicals found throughout North American magical practice. What with it being springtime and all, I thought a little stroll through our native meadows, forests, fields, and fens would be a good way to get back in the swing of things, and might even open up some new avenues of exploration for somebody. As always let me emphasize that THIS IS NOT A MEDICAL BLOG, AND THE INFORMATION HERE IS NOT INTENDED TO DIAGNOSE, TREAT, OR OTHERWISE MEDICALLY PROVIDE FOR ANY ILLNESS OR AILMENT. ALL INFORMATION IS PROVIDED AS FOLKLORE ONLY!!!
I’m starting with a plant that may or may not be familiar to most people: American Ginseng (panax quinquefolia). This plant can be found throughout the mountainous regions of North America ranging from Canada down to the Southern states. It’s long been highly valued in Chinese medicine, and has been considered a panacea (hence its botanical Latinate name of panax) for a wide variety of complaints. You can read a good bit about the botanical and medical side of the plant at its Botanical.com entry, so I’ll focus today more on the folklore side of this incredibly useful root.
When I was growing up in the rural South, I had a good friend in high school whose father would regularly take him ginseng hunting (or “sanging”) in the hills and mountain areas a few hours away. It was a profitable side business for them, as it has been for mountain folk for nearly three centuries. In the Foxfire Book #3, which includes a whole chapter dedicated to ginseng, there’s a history dating back to the early 18th century in which Father Joseph Lafitau had local Mowhawk tribes in Canada begin gathering and curing native ginseng for sale on the Chinese market (244). At one point, ginseng was reputed to be worth its weight in gold, literally. Jude’s Herbal Home Remedies includes this tidbit about the economic value of the root: “Even Daniel Boone gathered it [ginseng] to sell because it was more profitable than hunting and trapping” (18). Unfortunately this demand led to an overzealous glut of wild harvesting, and ginseng’s botanical population dwindled steadily into the early 20th century. It’s made something of a comeback in the last 50-60 years due to stricter laws governing its harvesting, but as my story about my friend’s family demonstrates, it’s still a very common practice and hard to regulate.
Mountain communities have long known the curative and tonic value of ginseng root. Looking again to Foxfire #3, we find the following:
“The early colonists not only gathered ginseng for sale, but used it in tea to encourage the appetite or strengthen the digestion, especially of elderly persons or puny children. Ginseng plus black cherry and yellowroot made a potent tonic, especially with the addition of some home made whiskey. An early herbal suggested gathering ginseng root and steeping it with chamomile flowers for fainting females” (247)
Its primary powers are to enhance male vigor, and its described as a potent aphrodisiac in a number of sources. This may be due to either its stimulant effect on the circulatory system or the distinctively humanoid shape of the root (a factor which has earned aphrodisiac and potentcy attributions for other roots like mandrake and ginger). Preparations vary from chewing slices of the fresh root to brewing teas to even more unorthodox decoctions. One informant’s method:
“‘You can take the roots that are dry and take a sausage mill or something and grind’em up and drop a pretty good little handful down into your vial of conversation juice [moonshine]. Take this ginseng and liquor and pour out just a small little amount of that ina teacup and set it afire. Strike a match to it, you know, and it’ll burn. And I mean burn it good. And then turn it up and drink it. It’s an awful bitter dose to swallow, but if it don’t do you some good you better get to a doctor and pretty durn fast. It really is good for that [male vigor]. And it’s also good for female disorders. Very good, they tell me, for that’”(Foxfire #3 250-1)
In one example I found, the act of finding ginseng has its own value. From Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia: “For some, the pursuit of ‘sang’ and other herbs is a therapeutic activity in itself. A ninety-year-old woman from eastern Tennessee said: ‘When I feel down in the dumps, I go sangin’” (60).
Therapeutic uses of ginseng in modern preparations reflect its historical value. Jude’s Herbal Home Remedies recommends it as a tonic and aphrodisiac, and gives this recipe for a male tonic:
“TONIC FOR MEN: Mix ½ ounce each of ginseng, shepherd’s purse, corn silk and parsley. Mix well and add 1 teaspoon of the mixture to 1 cup of boiling water. Let steep 15 minutes, covered. Strain and sweeten if desired. Drink several cups per day for 1 week. This helps to tone up the male reproductive organs. The stimulation to the prostate is helpful to all parts of the system” (120)
It also considers ginseng one of the great coffee subsitutes available in the wild. It is still considered a great digestive aid, as well. The folklore tome Kentucky Superstitions calls it “A sure remedy for all kinds of stomach trouble” (107).
In the folk magical realm, ginseng again parallels its medicinal uses, as well as adding a few new tricks to its repertoire. Cat Yronwode describes a recipe for soaking a ginseng root in Holy Oil which can then be used to anoint the male genetalia to enhance sexual performance. She also mentions it’s a key component of an old-timey gambling mojo, too. The root seems to have made its way into curanderismo practice as well, as the Curious Curandera lists the following uses for it: “Love, wishes, protection, luck, spirit communication, visions, divination, male vigor, gambling luck, to control another.” And Judika Illes, in her oft-recommended tome The Encylopedia of 5000 Spells, gives a number of great magical applications for ginseng root:
- Tie a red thread around a ginseng root and carry with you for beauty and grace (1026)
- Wrapping the first dollar earned at a new business around a ginseng root w/ red thread will help improve income (167)
- Mentions its name as “Wonder of the World root,” and tells how it can be used in hoodoo to enhance longevity, libido, & performance in sexual situations (527). Also says you can carve a wish on a whole root & toss it into running water to gain what you desire (763).
- Can be burned to break curses (598)
This incredibly verstatile root definitely has a place in a folk magician’s cupboard, though I would recommend acquiring it from legal sources. While I’m normally an advocate of wild harvesting roots for practice, in ginseng’s case three centuries of such harvesting have taken a toll, and since it grows well in cultivation I’d rather see the wild stocks remain alive and untouched for a long time to come.
If you have experience with ginseng or know of any unique magical applications for it, I’d love to hear them! Until next time, thanks for reading!
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