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During the 20th century many plants have been investigated in order to assess their potential value as new medicinal agents or as sources of new organic molecules that could be used in contemporary medicine or could act as templates for the synthesis or semi-synthesis of potentially useful therapeutic compounds. Examples include Catharanthus roseus G.Don., the Madagascan periwinkle, source of the indole alkaloids vinblastine and vincristine which have been successfully used in the treatment of Hodgkin's disease (malignant lymphadenoma), Rauvolfia serpentina Benth., the Himalayan snakeroot, source of the alkaloids reserpine and ajmaline that have been employed in the medication of stress, hypertension and cardiac oedema and Taxus spp., certain yews, that are the source of taxol, a compound of potential use in the treatment of cancers and especially breast cancer.

Among such plants is ginseng, the collective name for a group of plants esteemed by the Chinese for more than 5000 years, but never really accepted in western medicine and therefore soon forgotten by the western world until its reinvestigation as an alleviating agent or cure for the ills of modern stressful lifestyles.

True ginseng, Panax ginseng C.A.Meyer, is a small, inconspicuous, shade-loving, perennial shrub attaining a height of about 60 cm and belonging to the ivy family Araliaceae (Fig. 1.). The generic name Panax was derived from the Greek "way" and "a^o/uai" meaning "all-heal" or "all-cure" and reflected the popular, traditional use of the plant as a panacea. The specific name ginseng or schinseng is a transliteration of the Chinese names "Jin-chen", "Jen-schen", "Ren-shen", "Schin-sen" or "Schan-shen" (wild mountain ginseng) and relates to the anthropomorphic appearance of the subterranean parts of the plant, the vague resemblance of the mature roots to the human form. Cultivated or garden ginseng is known locally as "Yuan-shen".

According to the old Doctrine of Signatures or Similitudes, a theory apparently derived independently in many parts of the world, a plant would by its colour, shape and characteristics indicate its potential medicinal uses (Court, 1985). Thus ginseng with its man-like appearance was quickly accepted as a tonic, a cure-all with particular value as an aphrodisiac and a treatment for impotence and loss of sexual drive. The more anthropomorphic the better and the price rose accordingly.

The Chinese, the early Egyptians and the Hindus independently believed in their different ways that the world and all that was in it was constructed from a small number of basic indivisible units existing in harmony. In living beings it was believed that imbalance of such units led to ill health. Therefore the quality of life depended on the balance or imbalance of many factors.

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