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Farmer Carl Atkinson walks between rows of ginseng at his farm near St. Williams, Ont., on Aug. 8, 2013. (GEOFF ROBINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Farmer Carl Atkinson walks between rows of ginseng at his farm near St. Williams, Ont., on Aug. 8, 2013. (GEOFF ROBINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Ontario research uprooting myths about ginseng's health benefits Add to ...

The future of Canada’s ginseng industry lies not in the raised farm beds in rural Ontario where it’s grown, or even in Asia, where the coarse, gnarled root is shipped and simmered in soups and teas. Instead, some growers hope, the answer lies behind a metal door at Western University, where lab-coated researchers fiddle with test tubes and petri dishes, trying to unlock the secrets behind the ancient root.

In the past two decades, Canadian ginseng farmers have struggled with competition from Asia, and prices plummeting from as high as $80 a pound to single digits. Many of the same farmers who had abandoned tobacco in the 1970s and 80s under similar circumstances found themselves steeped in debt, and jumping ship again.

Those who remained – about 100 growers who continue to make Ontario the world’s largest supplier of North American ginseng – were determined to find a solution. They launched marketing campaigns and enlisted the help of Ed Lui, a pharmacology professor at Western. But there’s a wrenching irony: Just as Prof. Lui’s research could help turn around Canada’s industry by legitimizing its health claims, it also threatens to uproot many essential myths – such as the belief that certain shapes or sizes of roots are more potent, allowing them to sell for thousands of dollars more.

“The science will get rid of the myth,” Prof. Lui said, a woodsy smell wafting up from a bag filled with the ginseng in his cramped office. “Then you cause a collapse of the industry.”

Although most ginseng is consumed in Asia, Canada’s industry goes back around 300 years, when a Jesuit priest found Panax quinquefolius (North American ginseng, a different species than the native Asian varieties) in Quebec. In 1896, two Ontario men, Clarence and Albert Hellyer, began cultivating it at their farm in Waterford, Ont., in Norfolk County near Lake Erie. Even during the Depression they grew it, said John Race, whose late wife Hazel was a Hellyer.

“There was a Chinese family in every town in Ontario that had a restaurant; he would go and sell half or quarter of a pound,” Mr. Race said.

In the 1950s, Audrey Hellyer, Clarence’s nephew and Mr. Race’s father-in-law, received a letter from Hong Kong. Clifford Cheng had seen “Hellyer” written on a drum of ginseng at a New York auction, and wanted to know if they might be willing to sell directly.

On his first visit to the Chengs in Hong Kong, Mr. Race watched women agonize over choosing just a few roots. “I realized the superstition,” he said. “Tasting the fibre, the colouring, the shape of it.”

For the next five decades, the two families established the model for today’s ginseng industry in Ontario, which last year exported more than $140-million worth of the root. Mr. Hellyer sent samples by mail, and the Chengs sent back a price.

In 1976, two things caused Ontario ginseng to thrive: the death of Mao Zedong, and the continuing decline of tobacco.

“I grew up on a tobacco farm, so I assumed I was going to grow tobacco,” Norfolk farmer Carl Atkinson said. Instead, soon after he started farming, he began switching to ginseng. By the mid-1990s, the county went from a few farmers to more than 250, with new competitors in British Columbia, and especially China, growing its own version of North American ginseng.

As a result, ginseng – traditionally the food of the elite – became popular with a new middle class who “wanted a taste of the better life,” said Clifford Cheng’s son Marcus, who now lives in Toronto and is a principal buyer at one of Ontario’s main ginseng exporters.

But this market was fickle. “As the middle class learned about more of these luxury items – Louis Vuitton, Hermès, foie gras and truffles, they got distracted,” he said.

Making matters worse is the finicky nature of the root itself: Farmers have to build costly canopies to serve as shade, and the risk of disease or weather wiping out a crop is high. And ginseng can’t be planted in the same place twice, so farmers have to move the crop farther from their homes each year, raising questions about long-term sustainability.

Recently, ginseng prices have levelled off between $20 to $30, but to keep them rising, the science could prove vital. “People say, ‘This is snake oil,’” Prof. Lui said. “Having evidence that these products have health benefits – that’s the key.”

On top of researching the active ingredients, Prof. Lui – whose program has received $20-million from Mr. Atkinson’s group, the Ontario Ginseng Growers Association, the Ontario government and a handful of pharmaceutical companies – has been cloning hundreds of ginseng varieties, and planting them to study how they fare. His dream? That one day, Ontario will produce “elite” specialty lines: one for obesity, another for diabetes, and so on.

He also studies new “delivery models.” He’s looking at incorporating ginseng into everyday products – yogurt, soap, and wine – to translate to a wider North American market.

Mr. Atkinson played down the impact of the research, calling it “niche” (95 per cent of Ontario’s roots are still marketed to China). But if Prof. Lui succeeds, his research could debunk the same beliefs that allow growers to charge a premium for certain varieties.

Ginseng is graded on factors like shape and size, and preferences are entirely based on culture. In China, buyers favour large roots; in Korea, they prefer the gnarled ones. Prof. Lui’s research looks at chemical content, rendering centuries of beliefs obsolete.

“Misconceptions,” he calls them. “If I can show that the pencil-thin ones are just as good as the short, stubby ones, suddenly your expensive ones are not worth a lot.”

More urgent is the rise of extracts and capsules. When he offers ginseng to people, their reaction to the bitter root is often “yech,” he said. Increasingly, it’s being made into powders and capsules (like the popular Cold-FX). And with that, he said, “the shape and size factor – that will be totally gone.”

Meanwhile, growers cope. After Mr. Race retired in the 1990s, his nephew Peter became the only remaining Hellyer growing ginseng in Ontario. Then last year, Peter announced he too was retiring – “Our Cadillac product wasn’t a Cadillac anymore,” he said – closing the chapter on the four generations of Hellyers who had built Ontario’s ginseng industry.

“Things are changing today so fast, so rapidly, I wonder sometimes,” Mr. Race said. He hasn’t been back to China for nearly 15 years, and knows that the country, and buyers, have changed. “This is it for the family,” he said. “But I hope it’s not for the county.”

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