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Shade and time pay off for high-energy American root

In Season: Ginseng
by: COURTESY OF SILVER MOON HERB FARM, Mike Lobdells and his family have been growing American ginseng (above left) for eight years at their farm near Silverton. The treasured herb makes a great good-fortune tea for the new year.

For thousands of years, mainly throughout Asia, ginseng has been used to boost energy, strengthen the immune system, enhance intelligence, relieve stress and stimulate libido.

America has its own ginseng infatuation. We spend more than $1 million a year on ginseng-infused products ranging from energy drinks and teas, to herbal supplements and tinctures.

We can keep those herbaceous food miles minimal with American ginseng - Panax quinquefolius - which is almost identical to its Asian counterpart, Panax ginseng.

As you ring in the new year, consider this herbal treasure. Purchase a little dried (it's often upward of $100 a pound) and steep yourself a good-fortune tea, slice it and add it to a top-of-the-year soup or broth, or use it for an auspicious marinade.

Beware: Used sparingly, ginseng has a sweet, fennel flavor, but with a heavy hand it can taste bitter and tannic.

Gnarly, slow-growing American native ginseng grows wild in the mountainous regions east of the Mississippi River, where it is foraged in the fall much like truffles or wild mushrooms. It also is commercially cultivated throughout the country - including in Oregon.

The family-run Silver Moon Herb Farm just outside of Silverton has cultivated organic American ginseng for eight years.

Charles and Sandy Lobdell broke ground on their 31-acre farm and planted their first crop of ginseng in 1999 when their son, Mike, was 19 years old. A year or so later Mike enrolled in horticulture school.

According to Mike Lobdell, 'One of the big reasons that I got hooked is because ginseng is endangered. Over the past few decades people have been harvesting it and not leaving enough of it to replenish itself.

'In the wild, ginseng takes about a dozen years to propagate, so this kind of disrespect has resulted in a lot of endangered plant species - including ginseng and goldenseal - which is a big part of why we grow both.'

Root loves shade

The Lobdells devote one and a half acres to ginseng. Half is artificial shade-grown on a tilled plot of land under black nylon sheets (ginseng cannot tolerate direct sunlight), and the other half is woods-grown under 30- to 40-foot Douglas and noble firs.

During the past several weeks the Lobdells have been harvesting and processing the woods-grown ginseng they planted when they bought their farm in 1999.

'It takes a really long time because the root has to compete with other trees and foliage for nutrients and water,' Charles Lobdell says, 'but in the end the root itself is much more desirable.'

Artificial shade-grown ginseng usually takes half the time to grow to maturity, about four years, but it is usually smoother and without the gnarly, twisted form that international buyers have come to expect and desire.

And even though artificial shade-grown ginseng is typically twice as large as woods-grown ginseng, it contains substantially less ginsenosides (the active chemical compounds in panax genus believed to promote health) than its counterpart.

In other words, Silver Moon Herb Farm's 8-year-old woods-grown ginseng is flavorful, extremely potent and finally yours for the taking.

Sometimes it looks familiar

The Chinese word for ginseng translates roughly to 'image of man.' According to Mike and his father, every once in a while they'll hand-harvest a root that looks like a little person with legs, arms and a tiny head - 'and various other body parts,' Charles Lobdell adds jokingly.

If you'd like to purchase your very own locally grown man-root to ring in the new year, head to Alberta Cooperative Grocery or People's Food Co-op for dehydrated Silver Moon Herb Farm ginseng root (whole, chopped or powdered). Keep in mind one palm-size root will run you anywhere from $4 to $10.

Within the next couple months the Lobdells also will release a local line of herbal tinctures - starting with goldenseal and ginseng. Just be sure, as with any medicinal herb, to consult an herbalist, nutritionist or physician before cooking with or steeping ginseng.


Charles Lobdell's daily ginseng tea

Add a quarter-teaspoon of dried, powdered ginseng to any green or black tea.

If you are steeping loose tea, add the ginseng to that tea.

If you are using tea bags, add the ginseng directly to the cup and either strain it out or allow it to settle to the bottom before drinking.

Add honey and enjoy.