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29 August 2019

The healing treasure of the taiga

In 1980, when I, a native of the central part of European Russia, arrived in Primorye, I didn’t like the Ussuri Taiga at first: it was just another botanical garden. Moreover, half the plants had scary prickles and thorns, so I had to permanently break my habit of grabbing onto tree trunks with my hands. There were different smells and different animals. At any moment, a huge living breathing Amur tiger could jump out of the bushes. Or an unpredictable Himalayan bear. It doesn’t bear thinking about! But after three years, it was as if a switch had been flicked within me, and all of a sudden, I fell in love with this incomparable blend of incongruities.

The root of life

This wonder of Far Eastern nature doesn’t need any introduction. Humankind has known about the healing properties of ginseng for a long time. The first mention of the miraculous root, which heals all ailments, appeared around four thousand years ago. The plant was quickly assimilated into myths and legends and has been the bearer of nicknames such as ‘the imperial root’, ‘the emperor’s medicine’ and ‘the man root’; the latter stems from the fact that ginseng commonly resembles a person’s body, with a head, two arms and two legs. The root is particularly well-known for this shape.

If I now began to list all the ailments that ginseng can treat, there wouldn’t be enough pages in this magazine. The easiest answer is: everything! It stimulates the immune system and improves the body’s entire function. It also helps your body to fight off any disease. No wonder the plant’s scientific name is Panax. It comes from the Greek ‘panakos’, which means panacea (literally: all-healing). And irrespective of developments in modern medicine, people still believe that the ginseng root can extend one’s lifespan and even protect against oncological diseases.

Prices for the imperial root have been and remain, well, imperial. Consequently, a special craft called ‘kornevka’ emerged relatively quickly. At the end of the summer, root pickers (kornevshchiki) would go to the taiga for several days and seek out the legendary root among bright red berries. It was not easy, but it was even harder to collect it in the right way: the highly valued root had to be preserved entirely, with even the thinnest offshoots of the root which can be as thin as a human hair. As a result, the process of extracting the ‘root of life’ from the body of the sphere using special wooden shovels could take more than one day.

But the pickers’ hard work didn’t stop there. Having extracted the root and specially packaged them in envelopes made of cedar bark, they had to deliver it to the buyer and manage to stay alive in the process. Just as soon as the craft had emerged, a special form of banditry had emerged, too. Those who were too lazy to go off searching for red berries in the taiga for weeks on end began to wait for the pickers with a gun in their hands and they themselves would return home with the root. Much blood was shed over the ginseng root.

Today, the situation has changed dramatically. In South Korea, China and Russia, ginseng is cultivated on specialized farms. Consequently, pickers aren’t in danger of losing their lives through a bullet in the back, but they are threatened by hunting inspectors, given that ginseng has been entered into the Red Book (of endangered species) in Russia.

However, in glorifying the miracle root, we should also praise the leaves of the legendary plant. Experienced Tayezhniki (literally ‘taiga inhabitants’) of generations gone by would always take a pinch of dried ginseng leaves with them in case they became injured. Like an obedient student, I too took some leaves with me.

One day, during the forage, something went wrong. A badger (seemingly a good-natured slob but actually quite vicious) bit my finger. It was hanging off by the skin. In disbelief and realizing that I wouldn’t be able to play the guitar again, I wrapped my chewed-up finger in dried ginseng leaves. And you won’t believe the result: after a week of keeping it bandaged up in the leaves, it turned out that the fingertip had grown back, and I can still play the guitar.

The younger brother of legendary ginseng

Scrambling through the taiga in groves of Eleutherococcus is no walk in the park. Generally, you’ll get stopped by its aggressive spikes, that will claim bits and pieces of your protective ware. But the taiga hunters never hold a grudge against it. That’s because in every local forest in the USSR, there was a compulsory plan to hand over the Eleutherococcus root (Siberian ginseng) to the state. And in doing so you could make a fair bit of money. Extracting the branch-like, intertwining roots from the stony forest soil was not easy. But high demand for this crude medicine bore professionals who were capable of getting ahead of the production outlined in the socialist procurement plan. Consequently, the local ‘literakoka’ (as the tayezhniki called it) became rare.

Why was the demand for the root of this thorny plant so high? Eleutherococcus basically contains all the properties of ginseng! You don’t need to go on tortuous treks for days on end and you can produce it on an industrial scale. Eleutherococcus has not been assimilated into the same sorts of myths and legends as ginseng. And unjustly so: this plant is one of the most effective adaptogens, as solutions made from it increase the body’s muscle tone and stamina, increases the rate at which the nervous system works as well as an individual’s mental capacity. These tonics don’t only substantially increase the body’s resistance to infection and poison but are also effective under all types of radiation. They can be used to increase your appetite, raise your metabolism, improve your vision, and also enhance the main reactions of your central nervous system. Eleutherococcus helps your skin to repair itself after it has sustained varying types of damage. Ultimately, if I hadn’t found some ginseng leaves after my fight with the badger, I definitely would have used Siberian ginseng.

Happiness with a dash of spicy acidity

In a hiking bag next to my bunch of ginseng leaves, I always kept dried Magnolia (or ‘limonnik’ in Russian) berries. When I was not able to cook a meal on the hike or had nothing to cook, I would eat a handful of those berries. And — even though you won’t believe me — this handful was enough to perk up my tired body and allow me to happily scurry through the taiga until sunset. Of course, I was sceptical. My senior companions told me it would. And the well- worn tayezhniki knew what was what.

However, even people who had lived in the taiga for years and years can’t be credited with inventing this. In Eastern folk medicine, Magnolia has been used to treat various diseases from time immemorial. It’s said that in China, it’s second only to ginseng in terms of popularity due to the fact that it contains lots of vitamins and minerals, has a tonic effect, increases your strength, increases your resistance to adverse effects, helps with diseases of the respiratory, nervous and cardiovascular systems, and is effective in treating infectious diseases.

Finding ripe Magnolia is easy: this climber likes to weave its way around trees along the banks of taiga rivers and in September, at the time of ripe berries, it blooms bright red leaves that are somewhere between a currant bush and a grape bush. Moreover, it’s not just the berries that are used but the ‘body’ of the climbers as well: their finely chopped pieces give a special tea-like aroma.

Why is this climber called ‘limonnik’ in Russian, you ask? Because the berries have a specific spicy, sour/bitter taste and lemon aroma.

Prickly spikenard

It’s not in vain that aralia is commonly called the devil tree. Eleutherococcus has got nothing on its spines. And if you find yourself skiing down the slope of the taiga and decide to grab hold of a thin trunk or branch to correct your movement, be careful: if this tree turns out to be Aralia, you’ll remember that fateful decision for the rest of your life...

Nonetheless, this ‘devil tree’ is quite popular in both folk and traditional medicine. Prepared in various different ways, its tincture increases your immune system capacity, activating your body’s protective mechanisms and reducing your susceptibility to infections and adverse environmental effects. Preparations from the roots of a medicinal plant are actively used in radiation sickness and, unlike in chemical pharmacy, they don’t have any toxic effects on the human body. As for its effectiveness, aralia is often compared to ginseng.

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