Ginseng, The Divine Root uncovers an epic tale of herbal medicine and the plant prized for centuries by emperors, Native American healers, herbalists and smugglers. Collected by Daniel Boone, ginseng was one of America's first major exports to the Far East. The book tracks the plant through one season, following its wild ride from remote forests in Appalachia to bustling markets in southern China. The book weaves a journey laced with international crime, myths, gourmet cuisine, pop culture, herbal medicine, continental drift, and deep forests.
david gives an overview of the book:
When they get sick, most of the world’s population still turns to plants, not packaged pharmaceuticals. Ethnobotanists say that plants gain value as medicine only after many generations of people using them for food and other needs. Throughout the Americas and Africa, in Europe and Asia, medicinal plants have left deep memories of tastes and sensations. These plants are collected mostly from the wild and move through the world on informal pathways, unchecked by customs agents or health regulations. Ginseng, like many others, faces the possibility that it will not survive in the wild for much longer, and that strands of our own history will be lost.
Meanwhile, every fall, American ginseng continues to get shepherded along routes that lead from forests to the world’s cities and suburbs, passing through an eclectic assortment of hands. Some roots wind up in court as evidence, some in the clinics of Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. American ginseng roots, both wild and farm-grown, are shipped to South America, Europe, and Asia. In Hong Kong, a street crammed with traditional medicine shops sells wooden bins full of the root, while high above on the steep hillside in a shiny university lab, scientists track its chemical fingerprints. The story of this modest plant brings together Iroquois botanical knowledge and the theory of continental drift, diverse histories of Jesuit studies, ethnography and fur trapping, acupuncture and old-time musicians, fraud and folklore. Perhaps no other plant encompasses quite this range and intensity of human experience.
This book is about a plant poised between the danger of the wild and the safety of domestication, and is a picaresque of what life is like for a species balancing between extinction and stardom.
Throughout one fall and winter, I followed American ginseng. From upstate New York, it led me down North America’s eastern mountains to North Carolina, westward to the Mississippi River, and across the Pacific to Hong Kong and southern China. The plant, like a secret handshake or an epic told by a series of storytellers, introduced me to trappers in West Virginia, Harvard-trained medical researchers, Cherokee elders, gourmet chefs, smugglers, law-enforcement officers, cultural anthropologists and history professors, and a business mogul or two. I set out on ginseng’s wild journey through the world, and discovered a path it charted through human nature.
David Taylor is the author of the award-winning nonfiction books Ginseng, the Divine Root (Algonquin, 2006) and Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America (Wiley, 2009), as well as a fiction collection, Success: Stories (...