Ginseng is the root of plants in the genus Panax, such as Korean ginseng (P. ginseng), South China ginseng (P. notoginseng), and American ginseng (P. quinquefolius), typically characterized by the presence of ginsenosides and gintonin.
Although ginseng has been used in traditional medicine over centuries, modern clinical research is inconclusive about its biological effects.
The English word "ginseng" comes from the Hokkien Chinese jîn-sim (人蔘). The first character 人 means "person" and the second character 蔘 means "plant root"; this refers to the root's characteristic forked shape, which resembles the legs of a person.
The botanical genus name Panax, meaning "all-healing" in Greek, shares the same origin as "panacea" and was applied to this genus because Carl Linnaeus was aware of its wide use in Chinese medicineas a muscle relaxant.
One of the first written texts covering the use of ginseng as a medicinal herb was the Shen-Nung Pharmacopoeia, written in China in 196 AD. In his Compendium of Materia Medica herbal of 1596, Li Shizhen described ginseng as a "superior tonic". However, the herb was not used as a "cure-all" medicine, but more specifically as a tonic for patients with chronic illnesses and those who were convalescing.
Control over ginseng fields in China and Korea became an issue in the 16th century.
Ginseng plants belong only to the genus Panax. Cultivated species include Korean ginseng (P. ginseng), South China ginseng (P. notoginseng), and American ginseng (P. quinquefolius). Ginseng is found in cooler climates—Korean ginseng (P. ginseng) native to Korean Peninsula, Northeast China, and Russian Far East, and American ginseng (P. quinquefolius) native to Canada and the United States—although some species grow in warm regions—South China ginseng (P. notoginseng) native to Southwest China and Vietnam. Vietnamese ginseng (P. vietnamensis) is the southernmost ginseng known.
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