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The traditional interest in plants as sources of "natural" medicines prompted the grouping of closely related species under common names. Thus the name "ginseng" is loosely applied to a range of plants from the Araliaceous genus Panax although some other non-related "ginseng" species are also encountered in commerce e.g. Eleutherococcus senticosus Maxim, family Araliaceae (Siberian ginseng), Pfaffia paniculata Martius, family Amaranthaceae (Brazilian ginseng) and Rumex hymenosepalus Torrey, family Polygonaceae (Wild red desert ginseng or American wild red ginseng).

The botanical characteristics including the microscopical details of the principal ginsengs were reviewed by Thompson in 1987. Subsequently more information has emerged concerning minor Asiatic species that are employed in folk medicines in tribal areas. Nevertheless there are problems in the nomenclature of the Panax species. The species names are liable, in the words of colleagues at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to "a very wide interpretation". Currently the genus is being revised by Wu and other botanists and further changes of nomenclature and synonymy can be expected.

Ginseng is a member of the plant family Araliaceae, phylogenetically one of the oldest plant families having evolved in the Cretaceous period, some 65 to 100 million years ago, when the giant reptiles had just disappeared and the angiosperms, the flowering plants, were becoming established. Two areas of speciation were important, tropical America and Indo-Malaysia. Fossil evidence indicates the occurrence of Araliaceous species in Alaska in the Upper Cretaceous period (over 65 million years ago) and the Palaeocene period (65-55 million years ago). Fossils of Panax species were found in Colorado dating from the Oligocene period, some 38 million years ago. The bicentric generic distribution pattern prompted Hu (1978) to observe that genera with separated distribution were considered to be of "great antiquity" and therefore Panax species could be regarded as "living fossils".

The Araliaceae is a family now comprising some 70 genera and 750 woody species varying in habit from trees and shrubs to lianes and perennial herbs and still associated with two particular centres of speciation, North America and South East Asia. Although most species occur in tropical and semitropical areas, a few species are found as thorny deciduous shrubs in temperate areas. Typically the leaves are alternate and may be compound or decompound. The family is characterised by umbellate inflorescences usually comprising pentamerous regular flowers with inferior ovaries. The ovules are solitary and pendulous in each locule and the fruit is drupaceous with a bright red exocarp and usually 2 to 5 oblong seeds.

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