ginseng (jĭnˈsĕng) [key], common name for the Araliaceae, a family of tropical herbs, shrubs, and trees that are often prickly and sometimes grow as climbing forms. The true ginseng ( Panax ginseng ), long prized by the Chinese for its medicinal qualities, was in such demand that a North American ginseng, P. quinquefolius, was imported in large quantities as a substitute. Both species have been all but exterminated in the wild by commercial exploitation. The herbal medicine ginseng is prepared from the plants' dried roots; it is used as a mild sedative and to increase stamina.
The widely varied family includes also the dwarf ginseng ( P. trifolium ) of North America; the English ivy ( Hedera helix ), a popular ornamental evergreen vine; the Hercules'-club, devil's-club, or devil's-walking-stick (names applied to several related species) of North America and E Asia, used locally for medicinal purposes; and the rice-paper plant ( Tetrapanax papyriferus ) of China, the pith of which is used to make Chinese rice paper. Native American species of this family include the wild sarsaparilla ( Aralia nudicaulis ) and the American, or wild, spikenard ( A. racemosa ). The names sarsaparilla and spikenard are applied also to plants of other families.
Ginseng is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Apiales, family Araliaceae.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.