The Nature of Ginseng


The most famous herb in the Chinese pharmacopoeia is Panax ginseng, or Ren Shen as it is called in China. Ren Shen translates to Man Root. Man in this case isn’t gender specific. The root resembles a human, or person.

Chinese herbs are defined by their properties and their functions. The properties of ginseng as follows: it is slightly warm in nature, sweet and slightly bitter. Many modern texts describe the temperature of ginseng as “warm”, however traditional writings suggest that the unprocessed nature of ginseng is actually slightly cool, and its warm properties arises only after it is processed.

by Tiende Yang, L.Ac., OMD, MD (China) with Al Stone, L.Ac., DAOM

Growth Environment

Wild ginseng grows in very thick forest. It doesn’t grow at the periphery of the forest, but deep in the mountains. This has less to do with its growth nature and more with the harvesting nature of mankind. To find wild ginseng, one must travel deep into the forest as all of the easily accessible ginseng found at the periphery of the forests have already been picked. The best places to find ginseng nowadays is in the North of China in Jiling, Liaonin, and north of Habei as well some parts of Korea. A good rule of thumb is to look to Northern China where it is cold enough for the ground to freeze in the winter.

Ginseng likes cold, dark and wet weather. Heat, too much light, or not enough moisture will kill it. It is very picky as to the quality of soil in which it will grow. It prefers deep loose soil that extends downward very deeply. It requires humus, or topsoil rich in nutrients of decomposing leaves from neighboring trees. It also prefers water that passes through the soil, rather than stagnating around the root.

Cultivated ginseng is grown on farms in the Northern parts of China and Korea. The environmental needs of this ginseng is the same as wild ginseng, however man-made shade is substituted for the shade of the dense forest.

Ginseng blooms in early summer. It has very tiny flowers that are light yellow and green. After the flower passes, the plant bares a deep red berry. The berry is ovoid, not exactly round.

Wild ginseng is harvested in May and June. It is difficult to find at the end of the growth cycle at the end of the summer, perhaps this is because the blooms and berries are still visible in May and June whereas at the end of summer, they are not. Because of its preciousness, the root is cleaned with a tool made from bone because tradition teaches that ginseng is “afraid of metal” and bone does not frighten it.

Cultivated ginseng is harvested in September and October, at the end of the growth cycle. It requires at least three years of growth before being harvested.

The best quality ginseng has a longer and thicker root. Also, a longer head of the root denotes better quality ginseng. The heavier the better. After the ginseng has been processed, weight is no longer indicative of its quality.

Wild ginseng is very large and big. It is juicy and full of liquid. The wrinkles in the head of the root that are small and compact indicates a better quality herb than ginseng with wide and thick wrinkles on the head. A longer head is better than a short one. The more pearls on the beard roots the better.

Siberian ginseng is a commercial crop from Siberia, just north of the north of China. It has similar attributes to cultivated Chinese ginseng.

The Nature of Ginseng

Ginseng takes its virtue (energy) from heaven growing in the highest mountains. It also pulls in the virtue of the earth, because it requires very deep and rich soil. With these two energies, it gives rise to the “tian de ren” or the virtue of man. Ginseng’s energetic personality contains the same three virtues as man which are heaven, earth and man.

Yin Yang Theory and the Law of regulation

Yin energy likes the Yang environment. Yang environments would include high altitude locations, scanty rainfall, warm, dry, and bright surroundings. Yang energy likes Yin environments. Yin environments would include low elevation locations, moist, cool or cold temperatures, darkness or shade. Ginseng’s growth environment is both Yin and Yang in nature.

Ginseng only grows in the deep forest. It doesn’t grow exposed on the planes. This growth tendency belongs to Yin, but ginseng also prefers high elevations and this is a growth tendency that belongs to Yang. That’s why we say that Ginseng is Yang within Yin. Because ginseng has both a Yin nature as well as a Yang nature in its growth environment it can tonify both body fluids (which is Yin in nature) as well as Qi (which is Yang in nature).

Ginseng grows in a cold and slightly moist environment. It develops attributes opposite to these qualities while at the same time, absorbs these qualities as well. This is why we can call ginseng’s raw form Yang within Yin. The moist, slightly cool energetic resonates with the nature of the Spleen which is an organ that tends to be on the cool and moist side. That is one reason the Spleen can easily suffer form cold and/or dampness as a pathology.

The color of Ginseng is a yellowish white. This indicates that the first Zang organ affected is the Spleen and the second is the Lung. The taste is sweet and it has a moist, slightly cold quality in it’s unprocessed form having absorbed those energies from its growth environment.

The herbal classic “Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing” says that Ginseng tonifies all five Zang organs. We cannot dispute this thought, but believe that there is an order in which the ginseng tonifies. Ginseng works first on the Spleen because the environment in which it grows is metaphorically similar to the spleen; cool and moist.

Ginseng begins by warming and tonifiying the Spleen which ends up pushing liquids up to the lungs, this according to Zang Fu theory as well as the flow of energy in five element theory. The Lungs, which are the mother of the Kidneys, can send the Qi downward there to be stored. Again, this holds true in both Zang Fu theory as well as the mother-child relationship in five element theory. When the Kidney is tonified, it can produce Yin to nourish the Liver, and Heart. So ginseng can tonify all five Zang organs, but it is an indirect tonification. It directly enters the Spleen and Lungs and secondarily the other three Zang organs.

Another reason that ginseng has the ability to tonify all five Zang organs is that it takes years for ginseng to be ready for harvesting, it receives energy from each season and develops a very complex energetic nature. It includes energy from all four seasons which resonate with the five Zang.

Ginseng preparation techniques

  1. Ren Shen (Cultivated variety)
    1. Red ginseng, its color is brown and red. It is slightly transparent. After cleaning the raw root, it is steamed two to three hours, then oven or sun dried. This is the most common variety of ginseng. The body’s length runs form 5 to 20 cm. It’s diameter is 0.7 to 2.0 cm. Its smell is very pleasant, with a slightly bitter taste.
    2. Bian Tao Shen, (Long Edge Ginseng) Similar to Red Ginseng in color and quality. It is longer than red ginseng with a greater diameter. Its branches, too are longer and wider. This suggests a better quality medicine than red ginseng.
    3. Tang Shen (Sugar Ginseng) First the ginseng is placed into boiling water for 3 to 7 minutes, then placed into cold water right away to soak for about 10 minutes, then sun dried. Liu Huang (sulfur) is burned beneath the ginseng to smoke the ginseng. The essence of the Liu Huang (sulfur) passes into the ginseng via the smoke. This is likely a preservative for the ginseng to keep it free of worms. A special needle to puncture tiny holes in the root is used. The ginseng is placed into a highly concentrated sugar water for more than twenty-four hours. Then the ginseng is placed under direct sunlight to dry it out. After the ginseng is dried, it is beaten with a wet towel to soften it. The process is repeated though more holes are not punched into the herb. Once the ginseng has been in the sugar water again for twenty-four hours it is rinsed off and sun, or oven dried. The color becomes a lighter yellow/white. The length is from 3.5 to 12 cm. The diameter is from 0.6 to 2.0 cm. The smell is pleasant. The taste is sweet and slightly bitter.
    4. Bai Ren Shen (White Man Root) This is a kind of sugar cured ginseng. Its quality and shape is very similar to sugar shen. Most of the time it has a good shape (straight) that is very white. It is longer than Red Ginseng. This Ginseng’s beard (the long hairy roots at the end of the branches) is short, but very brittle.
    5. Sheng Shai Shen (Raw Sundried Shen) Of course, this kind of ginseng, is washed until clean and then partially dried by placing beneath the sun for one day. (One full day of sunshine. Very clear, brilliant sunshine is best to really absorb that Yang energy.) The next day, it is smoked with Liu Huang, probably for its preservative properties. Finally, the sun drying process is repeated until the herb is completely dried. The color of the end product will be yellow-brown, mostly yellow, a little brown, crisp and light, the smell is pleasant, the taste is bitter.
    6. Bai Gan Shen (White Dry Shen) The superficial skin of the ginseng is scratched off. When this happens, the color becomes a lighter yellow or white. The quality and shape of this herb is similar to Shang Shai Shen.
    7. Qia Pi Shen (Strangled Skin Shen). The method of preparation is similar to Tang Shen. Ginseng is placed into boiling water for three minutes. The herb is removed until its cold, then replaced into the boiling water. This process is repeated three times. At this point, the ginseng will be thirty percent done. Next the ginseng is put into boiling water for twenty minutes. After it cools, tiny holes are punched into the root like Tang Shen. Next the ginseng is placed into slightly sweetened sugar water. This water isn’t as thick and sweet as what is used for Tang Shen. After the herb has soaked, it is removed and oven dried. This will cause the skin to separate from the body of the root. A bamboo knife is then used to make small indentations into the root, very superficial. The smell is pleasant, the taste is slightly sweet and slightly bitter as is typical of ginseng.
    8. Da Li Shen (Great Force Shen) Fresh, raw ginesent is rinsed for several seconds and then dried very well beneath the sun. (As many days as necessary to fully dry the root.) This is the most natural form of ginseng. This kind of ginseng is not often exported because it has a short shelf life. It has the strongest medicinal effect and is the least prepared. The body length is from 5 to 15 cm. It has a slightly yellow color and is slightly transparent. The beard and branches are cut off to leave only the best part of the ginseng, however the head is left on for consumers to better assess the quality of the herb. The physical properties of this root is hard and crisp. The smell is pleasant, the taste is bitter.
  2. Ye Shan Shen (“Wild Mountain Grown Ginseng”)
    1. The shape looks like cultivated ginseng. The body of the root is wider and shorter. Usually there are two major branches in the body which allows the root to look like a body with two legs. In the head one will find numerous concentric wrinkles. The legs tend to be curved, not straight like cultivated ginseng. The root’s beard (small roots) are much longer than cultivated ginseng. The beard extends one or two times the length of the “legs” of the root. The beardy roots also have pearly spots on them. These pearly spots is the biggest difference between wild and cultivated ginseng. Wild ginseng’s color is a light yellow. The skin of the root is very soft. It’s natural smell (before cooking) is stronger that cultivated ginseng. It is sweet, with a slight bitter quality.

    The preparation procedures for wild ginseng follow the three following methods. See above for details.

    1. Sheng Shai Shen
    2. Tang Shen
    3. Qia Pi Shen
  3. Korean Ginseng:Korean Ginseng of course grows in Korea. It too, comes in both Wild and cultivated varieties. The more Northern, the better the quality, though it is grown in the South as well. Bei Zhi Shen (“fork in the straight road root” probably named such because the shape of the herb is a little bigger and the legs resemble a “Y” in the road.) These herbs are bigger and have a stronger tonification function.
    Production: There is Korean Red Ginseng and Korean White Ginseng. Red is stronger than white. Preparation is the same as Chinese Ginseng.
  4. Siberian ginseng (this refers to the ginseng that grows naturally in Siberia which is known in Latin as eleutherococcus senticosus.)Siberian ginseng’s function is very similar to Chinese and Korean ginseng. It usually has a warmer energetic temperature than Chinese or Korean ginseng. Information on ginseng distinct to Siberia is somewhat lacking because up until very recently, ginseng wasn’t really divided up by the location of its production. This is a more modern differentiation.

Clinical Applications

Ginseng used in formulas that tonify

Spleen or Lung Qi Deficiency: Bu Zhong Yi Qi Tang (Tonify the Middle and Augment the Qi Decoction), Si Jun Zi Tang (Four-Gentleman Decoction).

Spleen or Lung Qi Deficiency with cold: Wen Wei San (Warm the Stomach Powder) (Ingredients are Ren Shen (Radix Ginseng), Fu Zi (Radix Aconiti Carmichaeli Praeparata Lateralis), and Gan Jiang (Rhizoma Zingiberis Officinalis)). It should be noted that in ancient times, powder was not the dusty or sandy quality substance we now think of as powder. A better translation might be “very finely diced herbs” which are simply added to boiling water and steeped while in the drinking cup.

Lung Qi Deficiency with Chronic Cough: Ren Shen (Radix Ginseng) with Lu Jiao Jiao (Gelatinum Cornu Cervi).

Lung and Kidney Qi Deficiency Chronic Cough: Ren Shen Gou Qi Tang (presumably Ginseng Lycii Decoction)

Heart Spirit Not Calm: Tian Wang Bu Xin Dan (Heavenly King Tonify Heart Refined Pill) In this formula, ginseng calms shen.

Injury to both the Qi and body fluids: Sheng Mai San (Generate Pulse Powder) Ginseng Tonifies Qi and fluids.

Injury to both the Qi and body fluids: Bai Hu Jia Shen Tang: (White Tiger Plus (Ren) Shen Decoction) (Bai Hu Tang + Ginseng.) Especially good for post febrile disease in which the Qi and fluids have been injured.

Yuan/Source Qi Deficiency and Failure: Du Shen Tang. It is just one ingredient, Ren Shen but a big dosage giving rise to a very thick soup. Good for the condition following a severe loss of blood, vomiting, or diarrhea. Tonifies Yuan Qi. Shen Fu Tang (Ginseng, Fu Zi, decoction) Can be added to tonifies both the Yang and Qi.

Qi and Blood deficiency: Ba Zhen Tang (Eight Treasures decoction) Tonifies Qi to produce more blood.

Qi and Blood deficiency: Zhi Gan Cao Tang (Baked Licorice Decoction), used for deficiency of Qi and Blood with palpitations.

Qi and Blood deficiency: Tai Shan Pan Shi San (“Mount Tai” Solid Rock Powder) Tonifies Spleen Qi and nurtures Blood to avoid miscarriage by calming the fetus and solidifying the pregnancy.

Ginseng used in formulas that tonify righteous Qi to expel evil Qi

Wind-Cold Damp with Qi deficiency: Ren Shen Bai Du San (Ginseng Powder to Overcome Pathogenic Influences)

Summerheat with Qi deficiency: Qing Shu Yi Qi Tang (Clear Summerheat and Augment the Qi decoction)

Constipation due to deficiency of Qi and Blood: Huang Long Tang (Yellow Dragon Decoction)

Constipation due to Spleen Yang deficiency leading to cold and stagnation in the Large Intestine: Wen Pi Tang (Warm the Spleen Decoction)

Ginseng used in formulas that harmonize

Ginseng is used for “he”, one of the eight traditional treatment principles. It is used to regulate and harmonize. It regulates the Shao Yang syndromes, Zang and Fu organs, Liver and Spleen, Stomach and Large Intestine, and fever and chills in malaria.

Shao Yang Disease: Xiao Chai Hu Tang (Minor Bupleurum Decoction)

Stomach and Large Intestine Cold and Heat: Ban Xia Xie Xin Tang (Pinellia Decoction to Drain the Epigastrium) For fullness and bloating in the epigastrium. Especially good for vomiting. Not strong enough for pain.

Heat above, cold below: Huang Lian Tang (Coptis Decoction) Used to regulate the Stomach and Large Intestine, better for upward symptoms or exterior symptoms combined with stomach/colon disharmony. Another indication is abdominal pain and vomiting.

Qi deficiency with Yang Ming excess: Huo Jiang Ban Gan Shen Tang (Magnolia, Raw Ginger, Pinellia, Licorice, Ginseng Decoction) Used for gas and bloating of the abdomen due to Spleen Qi Deficiency with stagnation in the Stomach and Large Intestine.

Shao Yang disease leading to Qi and Blood deficiency: He Ren Yin (Polygoni Ginseng Beverage)

Ginseng used in formulas that clear away evil Qi while tonifying Righteous Qi

Stagnation of food, Qi, and Blood: Zhi Shi Xiao Pi Wan (Immature Bitter Orange to Reduce Focal Distention Pill) In this formula, ginseng helps the digestive function by tonifying the Stomach and Spleen. It is used for food stagnation, and “Ji” (Long-term accumulation of stagnated food, blood and Qi.)

Qi stagnation in the hypochondrium: Bie Jia Jian Wan (Carapax Trionycis Boiled Pill) Used for stagnation of Qi and blood in the Spleen and Liver. Used for hypochondriac enlargements such as splenohepatomegaly.

Ginseng used in formulas that regulate of rebellious Qi

Rebellion of Stomach Qi due to deficiency of Stomach Qi: Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang (Inula and Haematite Decoction) Used for Vomiting, belching, bloating or gas due to Stomach Qi deficiency with turbid mucus. In this formula, ginseng tonifies the stomach.

Rebellion of Stomach Qi with heat: Ju Pi Zhu Yu Tang (Tangerine Peel and Bamboo Shaving Decoction) Used for chronic sickness that makes the stomach Qi weak, plus heat in the stomach with belching, vomiting and other rebellious Stomach Qi indications.

Rebellion of Stomach Qi with cold: Ding Xiang Shi Di Tang (Clove and Persimmon Calyx Decoction) Used for hiccups, vomiting, and bloating due to Stomach Qi deficiency with cold.

Rebellion of Stomach Qi due to Liver attacking: Si Mo Yin (Four Milled-herb Decoction) Used for deficiency of Qi which provides the opportunity for the Liver to attack the Stomach leading to nausea and vomiting.

Ginseng used in formulas that regulate Blood

Cold in Ren and Chong meridians: Wen Jing Tang (Warm the Channels Soup) Used for Chong and Ren deficiency allowing cold to stagnate Blood and cause irregular menstruation. In this formula, ginseng tonifies Qi to produce more Blood.

Dosage and cooking instructions

Regular dosage is five to ten grams.

It is better to cook ginseng separately from the rest of the decoction over a lower flame, simmered for thirty to sixty minutes. When the other medicine is prepared, add the ginseng decoction into the rest of herb decoction. Ginseng needs to cook longer to take full advantage of its tonification properties, the longer time is required to steep out all of the active ingredients, and the price of ginseng is such that cooking it separately is more economical.

Another way to use ginseng is to grind it into a powder, or put the powder into a capsule to take everyday. If you just want to take Ginseng alone, the powdered form is okay. Add powder to hot water and drink. If you make ginseng powder, 1-2 grams each dose, 2 or 3 times per day.

If you’re treating a severe or acute problem in an unconscious patient, a larger dosage of 15 to 30 grams is indicated. Make a decoction to put into a feeding tube, or slowly feed the sick person’s mouth to elicit a swallowing reflex to send the tea down the throat.

For some people who only need slight tonification, they can take the regular powdered dosage of 1-2 grams every third, fifth or seventh day. Odd numbered days, or odd number intervals are considered an expression of Yang as odd numbers are Yang and even numbers are Yin. Yang would be tonifying in nature.


Ginseng works against Li Lu (Radix et Rhizome Veratri), they are incompatible.

Ginseng is afraid of Wu Ling Zi (Excrementum Trogopteri seu Pteromi). Ginseng’s “fear” is to say that Wu Ling Zi will lessen the effect of ginseng, but not completely neutralize it.

Ginseng hates Zao Jia, and Jian Lu. Hatred in herbal terms suggests that ginseng will neutralize the effects of Zao Jia and Jian Lu.

When taking ginseng it is better not to eat turnips. The turnip may interfere with the effectiveness of the ginseng.

To avoid the appearance of heat signs or symptoms when one takes ginseng, you can add Tian Men Dong (Tuber Asparagi Chochinchinensis), or Sheng Di Huang (Radix Rehmanniae Glutinosae) to the ginseng decoction.

In some individuals, those with interior excess conditions or severe deficiency conditions, ginseng may create some abdominal bloating. To avoid bloating, add a small dose of Chen Pi (Pericarpium Citri Reticulatae) or Sha Ren (Fructus Amomi) to your ginseng tea.

Make a decoction out of Lai Fu Zi (Semen Raphani Sativi) in the case of severe bloating due to ginseng overdose. Lai Fu Zi (Semen Raphani Sativi) is antagonistic to ginseng and will act to diminish the bloating for this reason.

Some classical herb books say that Fu Ling (Poriae Cocos) is a good guiding herb for ginseng, as it works as an envoy to lead to the Spleen, Heart and Lungs.

It is wise not to use ginseng for heat, excess syndromes or with symptoms of toxic heat (infection).

Last modified: August 17, 2009  Tags: , ,  В·  Posted in: Herbology