Name: Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
Otherwise known as: Russian Pips
Habitat: A shrub member of the Araliaceae family growing to about 3m in well-drained barren soil in East and South East Asia. It has a leaf form similar to the horse chestnut tree with thorns along the whole of the stem that is covered in a grey bark. It has a wider distribution than the more popular Panax ginseng.
What does it do: The plant’s name has a most prosaic derivation, a combination of Greek and Latin, meaning ‘free berried thorny shrub’.
Siberian ginseng occurs in Chinese herbals dating from the second millennia BC. While there is some confusion about which type of ginseng was being applied, there is no doubt that senticosus was one of them because there is an accurate description of the plant in an ode from the Qing dynasty.
Very little was known about this plant in the Western world much before the 1950s and most of what we do know is due to the large body of research conducted by the former Soviet Union.
Siberian ginseng is composed of a number of compounds called eleutherosides but shows no trace of the ginsenosides found in Panax ginseng.
Many herbalists now consider senticosus to be more effective and stimulating than Panax and recommend it for boosting the body’s natural defence system.
The compounds make the plant antiviral, an adaptogen, aphrodisiac, a vasodilator, hypoglycaemic, an adrenal stimulant with anti-toxic activity in chemotherapy and anti-stress.
Two catastrophic events of the 20th century brought this plant to prominence: the discovery of HIV and the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. It was found that high doses of the herb inhibited the replication of HIV1 cells in the acutely or chronically infected; and gave relief and protection in cases of radiation burns.
As an adaptogen the plant is in the first rank of naturally occurring substances that support the physiological system against stresses and their effects: they release innate resources of vitality in the process of re-invigoration and protection. Siberian ginseng affords one of the best examples of this in its response to atherosclerotic conditions, where it not only lowers blood pressure, reduces angina symptoms and low-density lipo-protreins, but will increase blood pressure in those suffering from hypotension.
The herb is now used to treat any number of ailments arising from conditions of stress. Much success has been claimed for its use in treating ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis), depression from overwork and classroom stress and in aiding recovery from surgery. It also has a remarkable effect on the cerebral circulation of the elderly, considerably enhancing mental performance.
We now know that Siberian ginseng was given to Russian soldiers and athletes to improve performance levels. In addition, it is taken to treat respiratory infections and is now very popular with long distance air travellers as a method of overcoming jet-lag.