Rob Parsons

Back to his Roots

Maui businessman and herbalist is tops at his trade

by Rob Parsons

September 13, 2007

After spending the last few years promoting local agricultural ventures, Maui resident Steve Rose has returned to his roots-ginseng roots.

With 27 years experience, dating back to his days in the Catskill Mountains and head of the New York State Ginseng Growers Association, Rose possesses a wealth of knowledge in the history and healthful properties of the long-desired root. His recent decision to return to what he knows best promises to tie in with his Made on Maui and Maui Grown experiences since moving here.

Ginseng won't grow in Hawai'i. American ginseng (panax quinquefolius) and Asian ginseng (panax ginseng) are perennial herbs growing only in Northern climates, a native understory plant to deciduous forests.

It withstands great variations in temperature, over 100 degrees from summer to winter. It may endure for as long as a century, and its hardiness is purported to impart qualities ranging from virility to balancing of the body's hormones, through herbal remedies derived from tinctures, extracts or merely chewing the roots.

I first heard of ginseng back in the 1970's, when I was told that chewing a bit of the root was better for attentiveness to long distance driving than gut-wrenching No-Doz caffeine pills, coffee, sodas or illegal amphetamines, such as the "White Cross" pills often used on college campuses back then to cram for final exams.

Those years saw a growing awareness that Chinese and Eastern medicine offered a different perspective of health care to that of the Western medicine outlook of prescribing drugs to counteract symptoms of disease. Chinese medicine, like the herbal traditions of many indigenous cultures, seeks to administer a regimen of plant-based teas and tonics to maintain and bolster health, not just treat the body once it becomes ill.

With 5,000 years of herbal lore singing its praises, it's hard to deny that ginseng has healthful properties. Rose explains that compounds contained in ginseng called ginsenosides help the pituitary and the adrenals regulate the body's hormones.

"In all of nature's pharmacopia, ginseng's the one thing that's best for bringing the body back in balance,"Rose says. "It's the pivot point."

While generally thought to be a pick-me-up or stimulant, it can actually help regulate the sleeping cycle. Rose says he sleeps six hours nightly, and wakes up fully refreshed. "I've basically gained an extra couple of hours each day over the past 27 years," he says with a smile.

Rose has assisted local canoe paddlers with their training regimens, and some of them put his extract in their water bottles while paddling long distance. He spoke with a woman who completed the Moloka'i crossing. She said that she felt good-an indication that prolonged ginseng use may also help in the recovery periods for athletes.

There have been more than 6,000 studies on Asian ginseng, but few on American ginseng. Rose helped found the Ginseng Research Institute in the early 1990's, but funding for it dwindled in time.

Rose believes the current generation wants immediate gratification, through energy drinks, Starbucks lattes or caffeinated sodas, rather than long-term choices to improve personal health. And, he says, it doesn't always occur to people to take something when they're healthy that will keep them healthy.

I met Rose when he was helping to promote local farmers and growers by establishing the Aloha Friday Farmer's Market at Maui Community College. Though the only local market with 100 percent of the products grown and produced on Maui, it never quite caught on, due to it being at the college and a concurrent market across the street at the Queen Ka'ahumanu Shopping Center.

Soon after, he helped the award-winning Surfing Goat Dairy promote their products. Now, he's back to what he knows best, and with some new ideas to give his products the Made on Maui label that holds unique market appeal.

Rose is pursuing alliances with a few Maui businesses to produce what he calls "22nd century medicine" by incorporating ginseng's beneficial topical properties into facial spray toners, shampoos, conditioners and other wellness amenities.

Ginseng belongs to a plant family that contains saponins, a soapy-like compound also found in aloe, olives, wild yam, yucca, and several other plants commonly used in the therapeutic/cosmetic trade. Ever the entrepreneur herbalist, he expects some of his new ventures to be at least as successful as his early 1990's venture into marketing Grand Panax Brut, a champagne-style fermentation which received great accolades.

Rose relates that his line of extracts is derived from fresh, not dried roots, because they contain a higher concentration of essential oils. His blends, listed on his website ginsengstrategies.com, include:

  • Steve's Wild Ginseng Tonic-Extract mixed with white grape juice, least expensive and mildest.
  • Maui Blend-both cultivated and wild root extracts, good for both men and women (pure wild ginseng can be too yang for women's hormonal systems).
  • Kona Sheng-blended with Kona liqueur, and with pick-me-up qualities.
  • Maple Ambrosia-Steeped in syrup from maple trees, with which it grows symbiotically in the wild, for at least two years. Very yin.
  • Catskill Mountain Wild-15-25 year old roots, extracted for at least one year, with pure spring water added.
  • Old Sheng-Featuring roots at least 25 years old.
Traditional Chinese medicine recognizes the need to balance the body's yin and yang, or cooling and heating properties. Asian tradition generally associates ginseng with the yang, or male energy, as it boosts testosterone levels in men, and is believed to lead to a long life. While it is used to enhance virility, it's not an aphrodisiac per se, says Rose. And American ginseng, especially cultivated, actually is more yin in its properties. Twenty-year-old wild root becomes very balanced in its yin/yang, he notes.

Centuries ago in China, the emperors sent armies to the North provinces to collect ginseng for the royal families. In the Orient, wild ginseng is mostly gone. Korea is a hub for cultivated ginseng, which produces a larger root as quickly as four years, due to optimal soil and growing conditions. But it may not have the concentration of all the vital compounds of a root found in the wild, which may have eked out its growth in harsher conditions.

During his years in New York, Rose said the mantra among collectors was, "Pick the root, bury the fruit." Ginseng bears inconspicuous tiny white flowers, which grow into a cluster of bright red fruits, each containing two seeds. The seeds must be stored and dormant for a year before being planted.

Due to its value, ginseng is federally regulated, having been cited as an endangered species, and Rose is licensed. He is the former head of the New York State Ginseng Association, which was founded in the 1920's, and past president of the North American Ginseng Grower's Association.

The history of American ginseng goes considerably further back. Daniel Boone, perhaps America's first non-Native herbalist, once filled a barge load with ginseng root, which garnered as much as a dollar per pound, a lofty sum back then. Fur trader John Astor shipped clipper ships from Philadelphia to Canton, while English and French traders shipped ginseng through Europe, re-opening the old Silk Road, and re-establishing the tea trade. Even George Washington, somewhat better known for growing hemp, had money in the ginseng trade.

The Iroquois tribe's word for the plant translated to "man spirit." Similarly, the Chinese translation is "man root," which may also allude the characteristic forked shape, sometimes resembling the legs of a man. The plant family to which both American and Asian ginseng belong, Araliacae, is extremely old, and may date back to when the continents were still a connected land mass.

Rose related a story that American astronauts used ginseng to help ward off "space sickness," a side effect of long periods of weightlessness. While communicating and comparing notes with Russian cosmonauts, it had been recommended that Americans try it. While NASA didn't authorize its use, neither did they disallow it.

Rose plans to write a comprehensive book of North American ginseng, both as a consumer guide and a coffee table quality tome. The popularity of ginseng has been cyclical, says Rose, yet has endured over thousands of years. He believes that as the impacts of our modern lifestyles and diets become apparent, that people will seek to bolster their body's abilities to regulate its own health through ginseng and other means.

Rose's business motto is simple: "Let our roots be your route to good health."