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Digging into the history of ginseng

Ginseng, the Divine Root: The Curious History of the Plant That Captivated the World, By David A. Taylor, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 308 pp., $23.95

For most Americans, ginseng is available in the form of herbal tea or one of the dietary supplements in drugstores . It's rumored to increase energy, reduce stress, lower cholesterol, and increase male sexual capacity. It's also assumed to come from Asia -- which it does. But it's an American herb as well. Ginseng grows wild from Minnesota to North Carolina and is grown commercially in the Midwest.

Ginseng crops up in the writings of the Colonial diarist William Byrd and of Henry David Thoreau. John Jacob Astor reputedly made one of his first fortunes in ginseng before consolidating his grip on the fur trade. And Americans are still making fortunes from it: In 2005, US farmers and dealers exported $20.9 million worth of ginseng -- mostly to Asia. In ``Ginseng, the Divine Root," David A. Taylor recounts the ways in which this shriveled, bitter-tasting root figures in the lives of those in Asia and North America and became the basis for a multimillion-dollar business.

In Chinese medicine, ginseng is considered useful for maintaining the body's qi (pronounced chee ), or vital energy. Marco Polo reported its use as early as 1274 . It began to enjoy serious European attention in the 17th century, when the king of Siam gave ginseng to Louis XIV . Then Joseph-François Lafitau, a Jesuit working in Quebec, discovered a root in the wilds of Canada that bore a remarkable resemblance to the drawings of this newly fashionable herb. The North American ginseng trade was born.

One of the most remarkable -- and enjoyable -- features of this book is the hidden economies and societies it reveals. Traditionally, digging up wild ginseng to sell to buyers was a way for poor families in Appalachia to make a little extra cash. Now the duties of National Park Service rangers in the Smoky Mountains include catching ginseng poachers. An 1859 ``ginseng rush" in Minnesota helped settlers survive the temporary collapse of the territorial economy just before the Civil War. Ginseng farming is the economic base of Marathon County, Wis., and provided a local niche for Hmong refugees from the Vietnam War -- so successfully that the area now has Hmong radio stations, restaurants, and newspapers.

As he guides us through the history of ginseng, Taylor introduces us to some of the people who have developed a passion for the plant. Bob Beyfuss is a New York State government scientist who advocates growing ginseng to rejuvenate the economy of his part of New York (Beyfuss also takes wild roots he's dug himself into Chinatown restaurants and barters them for dishes not on the menu). Mary Hardy, a physician at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, has used ginseng to alleviate the fatigue of cancer patients during chemotherapy (but while Hardy would like to see ginseng integrated into Western medicine, she doesn't trust the products available on most store shelves, preferring to work with traditional herbalists). And then there's Paul Hsu, a Taiwanese-born Wisconsin social worker who spent the early 1970s learning the ginseng business at night while mediating domestic disputes by day. In 1994, his company's sales topped $18 million.

I could go on -- about ginseng's role in the rise of the Qing dynasty, or the current debates about its medical use. It's amazing how much folklore, history, and science Taylor has managed to pack into this fantastic book. ``Ginseng, the Divine Root," is one of those rare works that remind us what an endlessly surprising place the world is by revealing the drama concentrated in the past and present of one plant.

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