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Ginseng Dreams

Ginseng Dreams: The Secret World of America's Most Valuable Plant

Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Ginseng Dreams
    Book Description:

    American Ginseng has a strange and perilous history. It has one of the longest germination periods of any known species, and only two environments in the world have offered the ideal growing conditions for wild ginseng. The first was the forests of northern China, which disappeared over a millennium ago, and the sole remaining habitat is the Appalachian Mountain region of eastern North America, an area now threatened by logging and mining. Chinese legend says that ginseng is the child of lightning. The two elemental forces of water and fire fight in an eternal struggle, pouring down rain and snow and blasting the earth with lightning. If that lightning happens to strike a spring of water, the water disappears and in its place grows a ginseng plant -- the fusion of yin and yang, water and fire, darkness and light, and the life force that moves the universe. American ginseng has become perhaps the most treasured of all herbal medicines, promising good health and longevity to those who consume it. Fortunes have been made and lost on the plant, which was America's first export to China -- before our nation even existed. The strange, twisted, man-shaped root today commands as much as two thousand dollars a pound in the hot, noisy ginseng markets of Hong Kong, and a wealthy collector might pay as much as $10,000 for a single, perfect specimen. Ginseng Dreams: The Secret World of America's Most Valuable Plant unfolds ginseng's past and its future through the stories of seven people whose lives have become inextricably bound to it: a huckster, a field researcher, a farmer, a ginseng "missionary," a criminal investigator, a broker, and a cancer researcher. Each of these individuals brings a different perspective to the elusive root -- and each is consumed by a different dream. Kristin Johannsen threads her way though remote woodlands in the Appalachians to observe the fragile plants slowly putting out leaves as part of a three-year growing cycle, during which time the ginseng is vulnerable to both poachers and growing suburban sprawl. She contrasts this with the huge commercial growing fields of Marathon County, Wisconsin, where among potato fields and paper mills, ninety percent of the country's ginseng is produced. Johannsen explores the brisk black market trade in the panacean root and the efforts to save the wild species and its native habitat, and she ends her story in the laboratory, where researchers are investigating ginseng's anti-cancer properties. An absorbing journey into the many worlds of this mysterious and potent plant, Ginseng Dreams tells the extraordinary story of America's little-known natural treasure and the spell it casts on those who seek it.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7139-5
    Subjects: Botany & Plant Sciences, Public Health

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. 1-12)

    Ko Shing Street, Hong Kong. It’s a blazing morning in early September, with temperature and humidity both in the 90s. “Take lots of water,” our friend Iris warned us before we descended from her air-conditioned haven on the twenty-eighth floor. We’d spent the night before in her glass-walled guest room, and could hardly bear to sleep, the view was so enchanting, through the neon skyscrapers that parade down the steep slope to the harbor, out over the procession of freighters and junks and hydrofoils skimming the dim sheet of water, across to glittering Kowloon and beyond to the mountainous bulk...

    (pp. 13-38)

    In November of 1912, a peculiar little magazine made its first, unheralded appearance. It was the brainchild of an elderly man named Penn Kirk, the owner of a carpet-weaving business in Arrowsmith, Illinois. He served as its editor, publisher, sole reporter, desultory proofreader, subscription agent, advertising salesman, and chief promoter. He called itThe Ginseng Journal.

    A handful of farmers scattered around the eastern United States had begun experimenting with cultivating the valuable plant as much as thirty years earlier, and by now they figured they were getting it down to a science. Through endless trial and error, they had...

    (pp. 39-62)

    “Don’t step on it!” Jo Wolf warns me, too late. “Oh. Oh, well.” Then she grins. “I’ve done that plenty!”

    The first wild ginseng plant I’ve ever seen is peeking out from beneath the muddy Vibram sole of my hiking boot. It is, or was, a baby—a three-leaf. That’s why I didn’t spot it here on the misty hillside until too late. I hastily lift my foot and try to resurrect the poor thing. Its bright green leaves are tattered, but the stem bounds up tough and wiry. It will probably be okay.

    A hundred and fifty years after...

    (pp. 63-86)

    A noisy, dusty street corner in a gritty Korean farming town called Geumsan. To get here, I’ve traveled three hours on a creaking bus from Seoul, overnighted in the provincial capital, then gotten up at the crack of dawn to ride another bus to meet Mr. Choi. He’s supposed to translate for me, and the arrangements were made weeks ago, but it has taken a half dozen cell phone calls to track him down, and it’s late in the morning before we finally meet.

    Around me, the crowd of locals settles down on the pavement, smack in the middle of...

    (pp. 87-110)

    In a chilly meeting room in Rockcastle County, Kentucky, on a Saturday morning in March, fifteen people are leaning forward in their chairs, looking to get rich. They’ve driven in at the crack of dawn from around the state: from Harlan County, deep in the mountains; from Frankfort, the state capital; out west in Hodgenville, where Abe Lincoln was born; Laurel County, just down the road.

    The workshop they’re attending is sponsored by an organization called the Appalachian Ginseng Foundation, but the ginseng-growing technique it teaches is the brainchild of one man—a Kentuckian named Syl Yunker, who has been...

    (pp. 111-138)

    Dr. Terry Jones is the kind of scientist who has actual mud on his boots. When I finally catch up with him in his office at the Robinson Experimental Station, the University of Kentucky’s agricultural station in the eastern mountains, he’s in jeans and a work shirt, just come in from a project growing blueberries on reclaimed strip-mined land. The berries do well up there, he says. They like the acid soil.

    I ask about his research work. “I tend to do fruits,” he tells me. “I also look at vegetables. I do tomatoes, peppers, and pumpkins, and we do...

    (pp. 139-162)

    In his store’s old-fashioned plate glass front window, easily ten feet high, stands a set of scales so venerable that no one remembers exactly how old it is. “It looked just like that when I was a boy,” Steve Goodman tells me, and he’s in his sixties now. It’s a balance with a low curved pan and a set of flat weights, a pound, two pounds, all made of the same gray, utilitarian metal. In the last century or so, it has measured out untold millions of dollars worth of wild ginseng roots.

    Behind the scale, red letters on the...

    (pp. 163-188)

    They’re almost beautiful as they slowly drift along, these dazzling, transparent shapes beneath the lens of the microscope. Some glitter hard-edged as diamonds, others are softly irregular, and the round ones flash like clear sequins. I shiver in spite of myself. In Dr. Laura Murphy’s lab, in Carbondale, Illinois, I feel like I’m staring down at death.

    “All of these are breast cancer cells?” I ask her.

    “Yeah. . . .” Murphy’s bubbly voice has turned serious, almost wistful. “They’re in different stages of division,” she explains. “They’re rapidly, rapidly dividing . . . and they don’t die. That’s what...

    (pp. 189-198)

    In Siberia, the last of the wild ginseng hunters lived on into the twentieth century. Long after the rest of the world believed that wild Asian ginseng had vanished, they were still gripped by a kind of fever, and wandered the taiga of Northeast Asia in a quest for the roots that remained.

    In a series of three obscure books published in the 1930s, a Russian explorer and writer named Nikolai Baikov recorded the wretched lives of these Chinese hunters who roamed the forests from infancy to old age, their eyes fixed on the ground, searching for a rare plant....

    (pp. 199-204)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 205-215)