A vast Jesuit missionary ginseng conspiracy

From Wisconsin to the court of the Kang-Hsi emperor, with cameos by Daniel Boone and John Jacob Astor

Published October 30, 2009 8:06PM (EDT)

A news brief from WisBusiness.com, "Wisconsin's Business News Source":

Gov. Jim Doyle announced a trade agreement between the Wisconsin Ginseng Board and a Chinese company today he said will result in $12 million for state producers over the next five years... The Badger State produces some 95 percent of all ginseng produced in the U.S.

Somewhere, the spirits of a couple of 18th century Jesuit missionaries are nodding their heads sagely. This news would not surprise them. Nor would Daniel Boone or John Jacob Astor raise his eyebrows. Ginseng exports have a long history in North America -- in fact, one could argue that ginseng, as possibly the first trade item ever exported to Asia from the Americas, was a key factor in embedding the colonies in what passed for globalization in the 18th century.

The historical record is remarkably clear. In the early 1700s, Father Pierre Jartoux, a Jesuit missionary stationed in Beijing, was ordered by the Kang-Hsi emperor to compile an atlas of China. While surveying the Korean border, he was introduced to the miraculous powers of the ginseng root, which flourished in the dark forests of the northeast. Jartoux wrote a report on the plant intended to be distributed to Jesuit missions throughout the world and eventually translated into English and published in 1714 in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, under the title "The Description of a Tartarian Plant, Call'd Gin-Seng; with an Account of Its Virtues. In a Letter from Father Jartoux, to the Procurator General of the Missions of India and China."

Jartoux's account was an unqualified rave, making the tuber, long prized in China, sound like a a cross between a wonder-drug antidepressant and crystal meth. As he noted:

"But four days after, finding myself so fatigued and weary that I could scarce get on horse back, a Mandarin who was in company with us perceiving it, gave me one of these roots: I took half of it immediately, and an hour after I was not the least sensible of any weariness. I have often made use of it since, and always the same success."

Amazingly, Jartoux also surmised that wild ginseng's propensity for growing in shady, cool forests in northern latitudes suggested the likelihood that the plant might also be at home in the forests of Canada, a country he had never visited.

Enter Father Francois Lafitau, a Jesuit missionary working with the Iroquois in Canada. In 1715, Lafitau read Jartoux's letter in a Jesuit periodical, and decided to follow up. Within a year he had located the plant in the forests stretching between Montreal and Ottawa. Lafitau soon organized the Iroquois, who were apparently unfamiliar with the medicinal properties of the root, as gatherers of the wild plant. He sent his samples back to China for positive identification. Although North American ginseng was not identical to Asian ginseng, it was nevertheless immediately embraced by the Chinese. By 1720, a French trading firm, the Company of the Indies, was exporting ginseng to China.

(Let us pause for one second here to ponder the linkages now exposed between Qing Dynasty emperors, Jesuit missionaries, Iroquois Indians, colonial exploitation, global trade, and natural medicine. We think the world has been made smaller (or flatter) by the Internet and other communication technologies, but even 300 years ago, the forests of southern Canada were not as distant as we might imagine from the Forbidden City.)

In "Ginseng Dreams: The Secret World of America's Most Valuable Plant," author Kristin Johannsen tells us that Americans of all stripes became fervent ginseng hunters. Daniel Boone was just one of thousands of Appalachian ginseng seekers, and the plutocrat John Jacob Astor "got his start in business in 1786 by buying every scrap of ginseng root he could find and chartering a chip to take it to China. From this venture he he received $55,000 in silver coin -- equivalent to $1,140,000 in our day, and the stake that founded a trading empire that stretched from New York to Oregon." In 1841, writes Johannsen, clipper ships carried over 640,000 pounds of dry ginseng to Asia, and the United States exported a total of 60 million pounds between 1783 and 1900.

Ginseng fever was so great that the United States quickly accomplished what had previously taken many centuries to achieve in China; the near eradication of the wild plant over most of the continental land-mass. Wild ginseng is now considered an endangered species in much of its former North American habitat. As the wild variety became scarcer, the commercial pressure to successfully engage in domestic cultivation rose.

And here is where the story moves to Wisconsin, specifically the German and Polish farmers who settled in the hills of Marathon County.

Today, 90 percent of Wisconsin's ginseng is grown in Marathon County. It is renowned worldwide and prized in China for its high quality -- which in scientific terms means its relatively high percentage of gensenocides, the compound believed to give ginseng whatever special properties is may have. But as recounted by Johannsen, it was all something of an accident. The pioneers of ginseng domestication, the four Fromm brothers of Hamburg, Wisconsin, were "just trying to raise the cash to start a fox farm." Specifically a "silver fox" farm, aimed at producing rare silver fox pelts that could command a huge premium in the fur market. The whole point of farming ginseng, for the Fromm brothers, was to raise enough cash to buy a breeding pair of silver foxes.

Ginseng cultivation is extraordinarily finicky, and it took the Fromm brothers years to perfect it. They also had to endure the crash of the Great Depression, which, combined with the Japanese invasion of China and then World War II, annihilated ginseng export markets. But the brothers persevered, and in the decades after World War II, prospered. In the 1970s and '80s ginseng cultivation in Wisconsin exploded.

But today the news that a new deal for Wisconsin ginseng has been signed could hardly come at a better time. Canada's entry into the export market, along with Chinese efforts at domestic cultivation, caused a global price crash for ginseng in the 1990s, sending hundreds of Wisconsin farmers out of the business -- including the legendary Fromm brothers. Although Wisconsin still dominates U.S. production, the total acreage under cultivation has fallen dramatically. Between 1997 and 2002 alone, it dropped by more than half.

And yet the root causes for ginseng's popularity as an export item in the early 18th century have hardly changed -- if anything, the potential is greater than ever. As one investigation of the current status of the Wisconsin ginseng industry concluded:

Although WI ginseng industry is experiencing a gloom period now, there are chances to revive it. China, the biggest market for American ginseng, has seen a growing population with more and more affluent consumers. Besides, domestic ginseng market is expanded by value-added products such as capsules, teas, tonics, soup base, beer, boxes of candy, and even cranberry-flavored "ginseng chew." The most important is that, Wisconsin ginseng is unique from other ginseng and famous for a higher quality and a minimum amount of chemical residue though at a cost of low production.

What, one wonders, would the Kang-Hsi emperor have thought of cranberry-flavored ginseng chew? Perhaps he would have immediately dismissed it as yet another barbarian innovation of no interest to the ageless Middle Kingdom. I'm guessing, however, that a modern Father Jartoux would taste it with curiosity, and, who knows, perhaps write a blog post about the yummy restorative treat that changed the course of history and global trade patterns.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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