Life in a New World

2020-06-25 23:44:49 |

"In China, Your Grace, there is not a single plant that can compare to Ginseng". 

- FATHER JOSEPH FRANCOIS LAFITAU, scholar missionary, Paris, 1718



Autumn is the season for wild ginseng. Wild American ginseng accumulated in the storerooms of a few wholesale exporters in New York before getting weighed and shipped to Asia.

David Law, America's largest exporter of wild ginseng said that it was like the stock market. You don't want to jump into buying ginseng at the wrong time. The right time is usually around the 21st of September. The Chinese market prefers dried ginseng since drying concentrates the valuable root matter, but the Korean consumers pay a premium for fresh roots.

Ginseng's life in the New World was fraught with as much power and peril as it was in China, Empires rose and fell. Plants appeared and disappeared. If money from furs and ginseng together was what propelled the Manchus to power in China, Europeans were drawn to America mainly by the desire for furs. They simply didn't know ginseng from poison ivy. But the Iroquois did. The colonial observers in the mid-1700s noted the use of American ginseng among many Native American groups. The Penobscots in Maine took ginseng to improve fertility. The Menominee in Wisconsin used it as a tonic that improved mental sharpness. The Micmac employed ginseng as a "detergent for the blood". Down at the southern end of the Appalachian chain, where Tennessee met North Carolina, the Cherokee used ginseng against convulsions, palsy, vertigo, dysentery, headache, colic, and thrush. In Iroquois Medical Botany, a botanical compendium by anthropologist James Herrick, American ginseng is listed as a remedy for sore eyes (boil a small root in a cup of water, squeeze drops into eyes every hour), tapeworms, vomiting, bad appetite, earaches, and difficult childbirth. For an upset stomach, boil roots in a litre of water and drink all you can.

Ginseng in the Americas was not just used in medicine. It was part of the landscape of the mountains from the Iroquois league south to the Cherokee. In the Cherokee sacred formula, ginseng was addressed by a name that translates as "Little Person" or "little man of the mountain". According to Cherokee medicine man, ginseng was a symbol of balance and harmony: "You take it in the winter and it strengthens you like sunlight".

The experience of Father Lafitau who uncovered the link between American and Asian ginseng led to the multimillion-dollar trade in American ginseng. Joseph Francois Lafitau, an 18th century Jesuit cleric, made a discovery near Montreal that set in motion reunion of yin and yang roots and launched American ginseng's travels around the globe. Father Lafitau's name is recognized almost like a password among longtime ginsengers and root traders. He was born in Bordeaux, France, into a family of bankers and wine merchants. He joined the Jesuits while still, a teenager studied philosophy and rhetoric. On April 10, 1711, Lafitau petitioned his father superior for permission to go work as a missionary among the Iroquois. He wasn't a parish priest or a naturalist intrigued by a new land. It wasn't clear why he wanted to.

When reaching Quebec, Lafitau plunged into everything about the Iroquois: how they prepared food, how they cleared the fields, how the women tended the crops, Lafitau always considered an item from several angles. He was intrigued by the life of the Iroquois.

In October 1715 Lafitau was visiting the Jesuit mission in Quebec and saw an item that caught his attention. That is an article by Father Pierre Jartoux, the Jesuit mathematician who had travelled through Mongolia to make an atlas of China, described Asian ginseng and its values in Chinese medicine. Father Jartoux wrote that after an hour "I found my Pulse much fuller and quicker, I had an appetite, and found myself much more vigorous". He tried the root again four days later when he was so exhausted he could hardly stay in the saddle. An hour later he felt good as new, Jartoux reported that ginseng lived up to its Chinese reputation as a restorative and described the plant's botany, preparation, and mountainous habitat. He added that it might possibly grow in a similar environment in the New World.

The article intrigued Lafitau. He became fixated on it and quietly dedicated himself to finding the plant in the Canadian wilderness for which he had no name, with any reason to think that it might grow there. After three months of searching and puzzling with a group of people inspired by his urge, he finally found a plant that matched the description right near a house he was having built. It was a mature plant whose vermillion fruit captured his attention. He was so eager that he urged the woman, who he hired to help him, to boil the crushed root the way that Jartoux described and drink the decoction. She did, and it cured an intermittent fever that had bothered her for months. For the confirmation, he sent a copy of the newsletter article and botanical illustrations he had seen in Quebec to the advisors of his acquainted herbalist. They confirmed that it was the same plant. By then, Lafitau had spent three years with the Iroquois and was starting to see parallels between their way of life and custom he had read about in the literature of ancient Greece and Rome. Lafitau reasoned that if the Chinese ginseng plant grows in both the New World and the Orient.

However, Lafitau was called back to Paris. When his botanical samples arrived in Paris, the Royal Academy erupted with speculation about the exact relationship between Asian and American ginseng, and with the arguments over his hypothesis that there is a historical link between Asia and America.

Lafitau's discovery had an immediate effect in Canada. All through the summer of 1716, the Iroquois of Montreal made good money selling ginseng to French merchants for shipments to China. By 1752, Canada's ginseng exports amounted to half a million franc a year.



Taylor D, (2006). Ginseng, the Devine Root: the curious history of the plant that captivated the world. Chapel Hill.


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