On April 11, 1711, a Jesuit missionary in China mailed a letter that changed the world. His name was Pierre Jartoux, and two years earlier he’d been sent to map Manchuria. The going had been tough, and to fortify himself he’d taken to consuming ginseng root — a practice that went back thousands of years in Chinese culture. In the letter, he reported that after a dose, “[I] found myself much more vigorous, and could bear Labour much better and easier than before.” He also speculated, based on climatic similarities, that if ginseng were to be found growing wild in any other part of the world, it likely would be Canada.
Jartoux’s letter circulated widely in Jesuit circles. Eventually it came to the attention of another missionary, Joseph-François Lafitau, who was stationed near Quebec. Lafitau decided to follow Jartoux’s hunch, and, after three months of searching, he found the plant, growing close by a mission lodge. It was the first time Europeans had identified the plant in North America (though native people had known about it for a long time). Internatonal trade would never be the same.
Harvard historian Shigehisa Kuriyama tells ginseng’s story in an essay collected in a new book “The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century.” The book examines how the growing global traffic in plants — for medical, economic, and scientific purposes — shaped colonial expansion in the 1700s.
“There has emerged this portrait of the naturalist and botanist as an agent of empire, going out into the field, and exemplifying this imperial urge,” says Yota Batsaki, coeditor of the volume and executive director of Dumbarton Oaks, a Harvard-affiliated research center in Washington, D.C. “In the 18th century, there is more intense interest and better capacity to go out into the field, identify and collect plants, and bring them back to Europe.”
“The Botany of Empire,” which grew out of a conference to mark the 50th anniversary of Dumbarton Oaks’ rare books library, examines the people, plants, and scientific innovations (like Linnaean classification) that turned plants into worldwide objects of competition during the period. Few exemplified the scientific and economic interests that animated global botany as well as ginseng.
At the time Joseph-François Lafitau discovered ginseng in Canada, the North American colonialists had a trade problem. They were hooked on tea from China and were hemorrhaging money to import it. Ginseng, which turned out to grow as far south as the present-day Carolinas, was the perfect solution.
“For Americans, [ginseng] funds their addiction to tea,” says Kuriyama. “It’s the one commodity Americans have that the Chinese really wanted.”
This trade dynamic flourished as the 18th century went on: When the first American ship sailed to China under the US flag, its hold was full of ginseng and it brought back mainly tea.
Things weren’t so easy for another tea-addicted country, however: Britain. The British loved tea even more than the Americans and sent huge sums of silver to China to fund their habit. They didn’t have ginseng, so they went looking for another crop to swap and settled perniciously on opium.
“The British are shipping silver to China and . . . this leads ultimately to this financial crisis, which gets solved by this strategy of shipping Indian opium to China, which eventually leads to the Opium Wars,” says Kuriyama.
In his essay, Kuriyama examines several other major ways ginseng influenced geopolitics in the 18th century. The Japanese wanted the tonic, too, and spent the better part of 50 years smuggling ginseng plants out of China and figuring out how to cultivate them on their own soil. Eventually they succeeded, creating a variant that was stronger than the original. It was so strong, in fact, that it proved to be effective at treating opium addiction. Soon the Japanese actually started importing ginseng back into drug-addled China.
Today, ginseng is a multibillion dollar business, and the root is consumed in herbal teas, energy drinks, and folk remedies. Wild ginseng (much of it from South Korea) still commands a premium price, but most ginseng is cultivated. In that way, the contemporary ginseng trade reflects modern economic conditions just as the 18th-century ginseng trade reflected economic conditions 300 years ago. On a recent trip to China, Kuriyama walked through a drug market and was startled to see where all the ginseng came from.
“Basically, all they’re selling at these markets is Wisconsin ginseng, or Wisconsin ginseng that has been transplanted back into China,” he says.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.