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Ginseng refers to species within Panax, a genus of 11 species of slow-growing perennial plants with fleshy roots, in the family Araliaceae. They grow in the Northern Hemisphere in eastern Asia (mostly northern China, Korea, and eastern Siberia), typically in cooler climates; Panax vietnamensis, discovered in Vietnam, is the southernmost ginseng found. This article focuses on the Series Panax ginsengs, which are the adaptogenic herbs, principally Panax ginseng and Panax quinquefolius. Ginseng is characterized by the presence of ginsenosides.
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is not a ginseng at all. It is another adaptogen, but a different species named “Siberian ginseng” as a marketing ploy; instead of a fleshy root, it has a woody root; instead of ginsenosides, eleutherosides are present, (see below).
The English word ginseng derives from the Chinese term rénshēn (simplified: 人参; traditional: 人蔘), literally “man root” (referring to the root’s characteristic forked shape, resembling the legs of a man). The difference between rénshēn and “ginseng” is explained by the fact that the English pronunciation derives from a Japanese reading of these Chinese characters. However, the current Japanese word for these characters 人参 (ninjin) means carrot, and ginseng is referred to in Japanese as 朝鮮人参 (chosen ninjin), adopting the name of the last dynasty of Korea 朝鮮 (Choson). The Korean name is 고려인삼 高麗人参 (goryo insam).
The botanical name Panax means “all-heal” in Greek, and was applied to this genus because Linnaeus was aware of its wide use in Chinese medicine.
Both American and Panax (Asian) ginseng roots are taken orally as adaptogens, aphrodisiacs, nourishing stimulants, and in the treatment of type II diabetes, including sexual dysfunction in men. The root is most often available in dried form, either in whole or sliced form. Ginseng leaf, although not as highly prized, is sometimes also used; as with the root it is most often available in dried form.