It is perhaps a little surprising to find an article about ginseng in a
Canadian history magazine. Ginseng is widely recognised as an
ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, but few Canadians would
know that it has a place in traditional North American native medicine
as well and, in the period under discussion, was plentiful in the pine
and maple forests of southern Quebec.
In Ginseng Rush, André Pelchat provides a detailed and fascinating
account of the discovery of Canadian ginseng by Fr. Joseph-Francois
Lafitau, a Jesuit missionary who, at the time of its discovery in 1716,
was assigned to Sault Saint-Louis (Kahnawake) southwest of Montreal.
Actually, as Pelchat points out, Fr. Lafitau did not so much discover
ginseng – the natives helped him locate the plants and told him of
their medicinal uses – as identify the root used for headache and fever
relief by the natives with the root coveted by the Chinese as a
health-improving tonic. He also was quick to realise that
commercial exploitation of ginseng by selling it to the Chinese would
increase the esteem in which Jesuit missions in China were held and
therefore strengthen their position to evangelise in that country.
The story of the establishment of the Canadian ginseng industry is a
complicated one, entwined as it is with the difficulties of trade with
the Chinese, the war between France and Britain which resulted in New
France falling into British hands in 1759, the near-destruction of the
industry by over-harvesting and shoddy business practices, and the
suppression of the Jesuit order by the Pope in 1773. However,
Pelchat succeeds in simplifying the issues to make them understandable.
Pelchat closes the article by bringing the reader up to date on the
ginseng industry in Canada, which is currently centred in Ontario and
British Columbia. Wild ginseng is now on the endangered species
list and Pelchat outlines the steps being taken to attempt to
re-introduce the root into maple forests in Ontario and Quebec.
Ginseng Rush will interest historians, natural health enthusiasts, and