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HARD TO BELIEVE, but the bitter, pep-boosting ginseng root—reputed to enhance everything from libido to longevity—has been at the center of trade wars and political dynasties for centuries. Native to Asia and North America, the herb is sought by Chinese herbalists, New Age entrepreneurs, and international smuggling rings, all trying to get their slice of the world’s $65-billion-per-year alternative-medicine market. DAVID TAYLOR spent a year following the lowly root from Virginia backroads to Hong Kong alleyways for his forthcoming book Ginseng, the Divine Root (Algonquin, $24), due out in early summer. Here’s a taste of what he dug up.
ginsengPhotograph by Robert Fiocca
Highest price ever paid for a single root (sold in the late seventies, equal to roughly $190,000 today)
Number of alcoholic beverages—Tilt! and BE (“B to the E”)—Anheuser Busch introduced in 2005 that contain ginseng
Amount, in milligrams, of the ginseng compound ginseng saponin reported to cause an erectile response in rabbit-penis tissue (British Journal of Urology, 1998)
Number of dogs trained solely to sniff out illegal ginseng at Seoul, South Korea’s Incheon Airport
Percentage of American ginseng smuggled into mainland China through Hong Kong (to avoid tariffs)
Longest prison term, in months, given to a convicted ginseng poacher in the U.S. (nabbed in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1995)
Daily recommended dosage, in milligrams, for preventing colds, according to a 2005 Canadian Medical Association study
Miles traveled by a typical wild American ginseng root from forest to market (southern Appalachians to Hong Kong)
Value of annual U.S. ginseng exports