Choose Your Chi

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According to taoist legend, ginseng is the greatest source of chi the plant kingdom offers. Several varieties of the herb exist, each with its own unique qualities--some energize and heat, while others rejuvenate and cool--so, in effect, there is a type of ginseng for everyone.

Ginseng includes several varieties of the Panax species, found almost exclusively in the cool, shady, mountainous regions of Korea, North America, and northeastern China. The Chinese named ginseng ren shen, "man root," for the humanlike shape of its root. They traditionally believe it to be a source of earth chi, the crystallization of earth essence into the shape of man and a gift to mankind from the gods.

Although they are rare, roots that are over a century old are occasionally found in the Chang Bai Mountains of northeastern China, which is said to produce the best ginseng. The wild roots are tied with a string and then carefully unearthed in order to preserve the "ginseng spirit" within, which is said to spiritually serve those who consume the root.

The active components in ginseng are called ginsenosides. They vitalize the body by gently stimulating the endocrine system and sympathetic nervous system, and their sedative properties also promote relaxation. To get the best ginseng, splurge for older, higher-quality roots, available in Chinese markets. Here is what you'll find there.

Wild Manchurian ginseng. This form of ginseng is said to have the highest vibrational chi. It's found in the Chang Bai Mountains, and its roots are strong--and costly because of their rarity. Historically, this type is the premier "chi tonic" of emperors and Taoist holy men and women. It is said to be a spiritually transformational herb that aids those who consume it to grow beyond their repeated mistakes.

Spirit ginseng. A semiwild variety of Manchurian ginseng, nurtured behind fences for 10 years. Because it is only partly wild, it has less chi, yet it is believed to have abundant spiritual qualities. Spirit ginseng seeds are also used to cultivate Shiu Chu (first pick) ginseng on lower-altitude farms. Shiu Chu ginseng. The highest-grade farm-cultivated type. It usually has a golden reddish color from being steamed with other, more invigorating, herbs. It has warm, chi-strengthening qualities and is the variety of choice for enhancing mental and creative energy.

Korean ginseng. There are several kinds, based on the age of the root and the method of processing before sale; the highest grade available is Korean Heaven Grade. Like Shiu Chu, it has a dark red color from being steamed with other herbs--in this case, heating herbs such as cinnamon bark and aconite, which enhance physical vitality and sexual vigor.

American ginseng. This type grows in northeastern American mountain regions and Canada, where it is also known as "pearl" ginseng due to its small, rounded shape. Though mostly cultivated, its wild roots are superior, though expensive. It's also the only type of ginseng known to have cooling properties, so it is commonly used by people with warm constitutions.

Siberian ginseng. This is actually a distant relative of ginseng. It grows in Siberia, not surprisingly, as well as northeastern China. Although not a true ginseng, it is still an excellent chi and blood tonic; it enhances oxygenation of the blood, which increases stamina and alleviates altitude sickness, thus making it popular among climbers and other endurance athletes.

Contributing Editor James Bailey practices Ayurveda, Oriental medicine, herbal medicine, and Tantra yoga in Santa Monica, California.