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Introduction to Ginseng, part 3, processing, tips on purchase and use


Ginseng root is sold in many different forms, from whole roots to processed medicines, candies and even cosmetics. American Ginseng is usually sold thin slices or short dried roots. Some are processed into tea packets and just consumed directly like normal herb tea. I always have some American ginseng tea packets in my cabinets in case I feel tired.

Processing of Korean or Chinese ginseng is more complicated, and depends on the origin (wild or cultivated), age, method and where the production takes place. The first step is usually the same: fresh roots are carefully dug and gently brushed to remove soil without any damages on the precious rootlets.

White ginseng  refers to roots that are less than six years old. Since the quality is not the best, they are bleached with sulfur gas and sun-dried. Normally they rarely get exported from Korea.

Red ginseng must be at least four years old, but usually is more than six. There are various methods of processing, such as steam heating for several hours and a final drying over low heat or in the sun. The best whole roots are bound with fine white string in order to keep all the rootlets intact. These finest ginseng roots are very expensive.


For both American and Korean ginseng, the untouched, whole root or root pieces are the best for purchase. Keep the root skin intact is very important for the quality because ginseng's most valuable elements lie in the dark, exterior skin. The larger and the more the Korean roots look like a human form, the more expensive they are. However, the far cheaper rootlets may be actually chemically more valuable because the surface area is larger in ratio to volume, although some say that these rootlets are "colder" than the main stem in terms of properties.


When taking ginseng, avoid taking Vitamin C (including fresh fruits), avoid eating cooked radish, and never drink tea at the same time. These three things will reduce the efficiency of the ginseng. Also, it's not recommended to take Korean ginseng every day as it's going to produce "heat" in the body and makes it "overheat". American ginseng is better as daily tonic over a longer period. I posted recipe for Korean ginseng chicken soup a while ago.

(sources:  Streetwise Guide: Chinese Herbal Medicine by Wong Kang Ying and Martha Dahle)


Introduction to Ginseng, part 2, therapeutic properties and uses

Since long time ago, both Chinese and American ginsengs have been widely used as medicine. They have often served in the treatment of many of the same bodily disorders.  In China, the history of using ginseng has been recorded for more than 4000 years. The look of ginseng looks quite like human body, that's why all sorts of myths about ginsengs that are over thousand years old can become fairies. On the other hand, there are also many legends and stories saying that ginseng was a gift given to men by the fairies. That's why portrayals of fairies have been used traditionally as decorations on packages and advertisements of ginsengs, especially for Korean products.

The uses of ginseng are wide. Chinese doctors treat different health issues ranging from dysentery, malaria, cancer and diabetes, as well as to improve circulation of blood; to reduce high blood pressure, and to remedy almost all blood and skin diseases, from pimples and boils to anemia.  Ginseng is known as "Herb of Eternal Life" and the "Elixir of Life" among people, and it's taken as a general tonic to enhance health and longevity.

The fundamental value of ginseng is its great ability to detoxify and normalize the entire system, or we can say to increase vital energy. It re-establishes the organ's functions, corrects disordered nutrition and metabolism, and purifies the blood and lymphatic systems. The effect of ginseng works slowly and gently, without much side effects.

After some research by Japanese, Chinese and Russian scientists since mid-1900s, some spectacular chemical properties were found in Ginseng. Many of ginseng's essentials are chemically unique and were given names derived from the genus name. "Panacene" is tranquilizer and pain reliever; "Panaxin" stimulates the brain, improves muscle tone and tunes up the cardiovascular system; "Panquilon" stimulates the endocrine secretions, such as pituitary, thyroid and adrenal glands) which in turn regulate different body processes from digestion to aging. Also, ginseng contains a range of B vitamins, significant amounts of minerals and enzymes. "Germanium" is also an essential element which has been shown clinically effective in treating anemia by stimulating the formation of red blood cells in bone marrow, and is being investigated as a cure for cancer.

In Hong Kong, Korean and American ginseng are used quite differently. American Ginseng is more for general purposes, for both acute and chronic diseases, because it nourishes in general as a whole and has fewer side effects. Korean ginseng is usually used in cases of "yang deficiency". So old man with "yang" diminishing along with age during winter (a "yin" season") specifically find it beneficial. If "yang" is too much, like if it's taken by young people or in summer, "hot" symptoms such as headache, mouth ulcers and insomnia can happen.

(sources: Streetwise Guide: Chinese Herbal Medicine by Wong Kang Ying and Martha Dahle)


Introduction to Ginseng, part 1

Other than Lingzhi, Ginseng rank the second or almost the first among Chinese herbs. In Chinese history, ginseng has been a legendary herbal medicine that can almost turn death back alive. Of course, those were all myths but you can tell how ginseng became one of the group of medical herbs that are highly respected. It's properties are great for regulating body function, like a big tune up of your body. After western medicine did a lot of research on ginseng, it was told that these properties are due to chemical constituents that are similar to hormones.  Now there are mostly three ginsengs on the market, two of which belong to the genus Panax. "Panax" comes from the Greek "pan" and "akos", meaning a cure-all medicinal herb. There are many species of this genus, the following three are commonly cultivated and marketed.

Chinese or Korean ginseng (Panax Ginseng)

高麗參,人參  (Mandarin: Gao Li Shen, Ren Shen; Cantonese:  Go Lai Sum, Yun Sum)

This is the most commonly used and marketed of the Panax species. It's now cultivated in northern China and Korea. The myths and stories of ginseng mostly referred to this species. It's best for senior people. There was a post I talked about Korean Ginseng Chicken soup.

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium)

花旗參 (Mandarin: Hua Qi Shen; Cantonese:  Fa Kay Sum)

This grows wild on the forested mountain slopes in eastern North America, mostly in Wisconsin. It keeps you awake and reduce your "heat". The function is quite different from Korean ginseng.

Russian or Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)

俄羅斯/西伯利亞參 (抽參)(Mandarin: Chou Shen; Cantonese:  Chau Sum)

Although it's in the same family as true ginseng,  this herb belongs to another genus. It's chemistry and therapeutic properties are similar to true ginseng.

(sources:  Streetwise Guide: Chinese Herbal Medicine by Wong Kang Ying and Martha Dahle)


Single-herb formula to treat Arteriosclerosis

Arteriosclerosis, commonly known as hardening of the arteries, is a condition in which the arteries lose elasticity because of calcium deposits within their lining or because of muscle and elastic fibers being replaced by fibrous tissue. Both types can be characterized by a thickening of the arteries walls and a narrowing of their channels, hence causes hypertension. The inefficient blood circulation through arteries can cause bigger concern when it affects the coronary artery that delivers blood to the heart.

Arteriosclerosis happens to mostly older people, but it can affect any age who doesn't care much about their health, with regard to diet and exercise. To improve circulation and keep the arteries elastic, traditional Chinese medicine suggests herbal therapy, walking, massage and certain gentle exercises like Tai Chi (a gentle martial art). And low cholesterol diet can help reducing its deposits narrowing the channels of the arteries. Red meat, dairy products, salt, refined sugar and alcohol should be avoided. Obesity and smoking also make arteriosclerosis worse.

There's a single-herb formula recommended by TCM to treat arteriosclerosis, and the herb is called "Shan Zha" in Mandarin (山楂), which is known as Hawthorne Berry or Hawthorn fruit.  It tastes sweet and sour and you can even find some very nice snacks made of Shan Zha in Chinese grocery stores. One of the famous snack is called Haw Flakes. There are also Shan Zha patent medicine as well.

Shan Zha tea (Hawthorn Berry Tea)

Ingredient: 15 grams of Shan Zha (Hawthorn fruit)

Description: Take Shan Zha tea several times a day is an effective way to reduce fatty lipids in the blood, lower cholesterol and softens the arteries. This formula should be used for a long period of time like 2 to 3 years. Shan Zha also improves digestion and circulation of blood, help hypertension and coronary heart disease.

Preparation: Use a tea cup, add 8 oz of boiling water to about 2 teaspoons of Shan Zha; cover the coup and wait for 10-15 minutes. Strain off the Shan Zha herb and drink the tea.

(sources: Chinese Herbal Medicine made easy by Thomas Richard Joiner, Streetwise Guide: Chinese Herbal Medicine by Wong Kang Ying and Martha Dahle)


Preparation of Chinese herbal medicines – medicinal wine

Last post I talked about preparation of decoction. Another form of medicine are called tonic tinctures, or medicinal wine ("Yao Jiu" in mandarin). Occasionally you'll see them on display in Chinese herb shops held in bottles or big jars full of herbs immersed in a dark liquid. The ancient practice of aging herbs in alcohol is the simplest and probably the oldest method known for making medicines. In the preparation, herbs are immersed in an alcohol solution allowing the herbal properties to be drawn out by the alcohol. The wine itself is believed to possess nourishing, blood-invigoration properties that enhance the therapeutic effects of the herbs inside.

Alcohol is the second most popular solvent to use in herbal preparation other than water. There are other solvents such as milk, vinegar and even infant's urine are commonly used (I know, don't "yuck" me), and vinegar is more common than the others, probably rank after alcohol.

When medicinal wine is prepared for internal consumption, sweet rice wine, fine brandy or vodka are the best choices. For external use to prepare liniments, ethanol or rectified turpentine is used.

Making medicinal wine isn't rocket science. Other than the quality of the ingredients, the most important thing is the environment condition. The best would be like most conditions found in commercial wine cellars, which is dark, cool, dry and neutral.

A medicinal wine is made by adding 1.5 to 2.5 ounces of fresh herbs to about a liter of alcohol. Honey can be added to improve taste, especially when vodka is used. For internal consumption, the alcohol used should be no more than 40% in the liquor.

Instruction of preparing a medicinal wine:

1. Uncap a bottle of alcohol and pour some off so there is enough room for the herbs; or use a jar if you like to have more produced;

2. Immerse the herbs into the alcohol and recap the bottle;

3. Store it in a dry, cool and dark place for at least 60 to 90 days.

4. Gently shake the bottle once a week.

When the aging process is done, leave the herbs in the bottle until the wine is all consumed. The longer the wine is aged, the more potent it will become. It's pretty usual a medicinal wine is aged for more than a year. Some herb shops sell these wines that are over 10 years old and these are very valuable wines because of the value of time.

Once the wine has aged well enough, a standard dose should be one ounce of wine at room temperature 3 times daily. (Morning, afternoon and evening) You may dilute the wine in 4oz of tepid water or just drink it straight up.

Tonics, on the other hand, are mostly for seniors. These tonic formulas were developed centuries ago and benefits proven by modern Chinese medicines. Tonics or tonic tinctures are usually not for healing, they're for consumption everyday to maintain good health, nourish the blood and promote longevity.

1. Tonics require uninterrupted use over a period of time to show the benefits, just like bodybuilding;

2. Herbal tonics should be taken after meals;

3. Herbal tonics should never be taken when you're starting a cold or a flu, it's going to make the cold and flu worse. (driving these sickness deeper into your body)

There are also herbal wine sold in retail store. You can find them in most Asian/Chinese supermarket, and Chinese herb/drug store. These are made by factory with a formula that work for years and get mass produced. Be cautious on the directions though, many medicinal wines are not suitable for particular people like ones that are pregnant or with certain diseases.

And yeah, there ARE snake wines prepared with live Cobra in Asian culture, especially Vietnamese. It is said that it can heal everything and can last for as long as 500 years. I found a scary picture (actually more than one from different sites) in a blog that talks about how Vietnamese herbalist prepare a snake wine. Visit here if you're interested and here to see more. I even found lizard wine, scorpion wine and many unbelievable medicinal wines in different Asian cultures in my research as well. But just remember, most medicinal wines are made of plants.

(sources: Chinese Herbal Medicine made easy by Thomas Richard Joiner, Streetwise Guide: Chinese Herbal Medicine by Wong Kang Ying and Martha Dahle)


Preparation of Chinese herbal medicines – decoction

Although herbs can be prepared in many ways including oils, liniments, pills, capsules, tablets, ointments etc.  - decoction (tea) and medicinal wine are the most popular and most functional methods for Chinese herbs consumption.

In many countries, tea is considered as one of the beverage choices. However in China, tea is a major beverage that is not only considered as refreshment but therapeutic and life-sustaining.

Shen Nong, is an ancient legend figure who first introduced tea-drinking. He's also the one who wrote the earliest text available about Chinese herbal medicine. So in China culture use of herbs for healing is always related to the technique of decoction, which is like brewing tea. Decoction is particularly effective for acute disorders, because herbal tea is quickly absorbed into bloodstream and become effective in healing.

Although preparation is simple, there are still something to remember:

  • Never cook a decoction in metal pot. Use porcelain, Pyrex, enamel or glass. Because metal can adversely affect some herbal constituents. You can find those special porcelain pot for decoction in most Chinese herbal shops.
  • When preparing a decoction, bring the water to a rolling boil first and then add the herbs; This is to extract the therapeutic properties of the herbs.
  • Always simmer the decoction over a low flame.
  • Never store the decoction using plastic containers.

Instruction for preparing a decoction in general:

  • Immerse the herbs into a required amount of room-temperature water for half to one hour.
  • Bring that required amount of room-temperature water in a large pot to rolling boil. Add the herbs again, stir, and return to a boil;
  • Lower the heat to simmer and cover the pot until rolling boil;
  • Simmer over a low flame with partial lid on and wait until certain amount of water reduced to certain amount of water - depending on the directions. For example, "3 bowls of water reduced to one" is a common directive.
  • Remove the pot from heat with the lid on, and allow the cooked tea to cool.
  • Strain off the herbs and discard them, or boil twice in order to extract all its goodness - as directed by the doctor.
  • Place the herbal tea into a glass container if necessary. It could be stored in the refrigerator for about 10-14 days. Avoid using microwave to heat it back up, though.

For those who're too busy to boil the herbs, they can tell the herb shop to boil for them for a small charge, and keep it warm until the customer comes back.

(sources: Chinese Herbal Medicine made easy by Thomas Richard Joiner, Streetwise Guide: Chinese Herbal Medicine by Wong Kang Ying and Martha Dahle)