We interviewed Holly Chittum, winner of the President’s Award for her research poster at this year’s Research Day. She discusses her research on American ginseng and explains why more research needs to be done in the herbal field.
Can you share some details about your research project and what sparked your interest in American ginseng?
I was comparing American ginseng cultivation methods and how these methods affect marketability and buyer preferences for the herb both domestically and abroad. There is a huge demand in Asia for American ginseng. Many Asian countries value ginseng above all other medicines and it is said to have been used there for close to 4,000 years, hence it was our first export to China 300 years ago and has been a top plant export there ever since. This is very surprising to people who are unfamiliar with the industry. In the U.S., ginseng is not held in such high esteem, though it is considered to be an effective adaptogen. There are nine species of ginseng in Asia, but only two here in the U.S. and we only currently use one species medicinally, though both contain ginsenocides (considered the “active principle”). In Asia, they have harvested their wild populations to extirpation (extinction). Though the U.S. still has naturally occurring wild populations, they are harvested for export intensively and a lot of people are concerned about the sustainability of this type of commerce. Cultivation methods like wild simulation and woods cultivation seem to hold some promise as a substitution for wild harvest.
Are there any other areas of research related to ginseng that you’re interested in exploring?
Yes. What we consider to be the “active” components of ginseng are called ginsenosides. Some people think that wild ginseng has more of these compounds than cultivated ginseng, but with a dearth of research in this area, the jury is still out. So this is an area I’d like to explore further. I am also very interested in looking at these compounds in our other Panax species (Panax trifolius), with the goal of using this plant as a possible analogue for American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius).
What other interests do you have related to herbs, more broadly?
My interests tend to veer more toward plant research with the goal of looking at environmental, economic, and therapeutic implications. The research that I just did for example, is more of what is needed in the herbal world insofar as it gives insight into how a plant is raised and what we can use medicinally from it. We can then apply this information to clinical research. I think linking these areas of study helps to create more validity in medicinal herb research. Currently, the field of herbal medicine is lacking in meaningful, valid, duplicated research. A lot of that has to do with funding, unfortunately, but the more we can connect all the dots, from cultivation to therapeutics the better, because we live in a very science-focused society that relies on this type of data to make informed decisions about health care.
How has your passion for herbs extended beyond MUIH?
Since January, I’ve been interning at Penn State University’s Shavers Creek Environmental Center with Dr. Eric Burkhart, whose primary research is in ginseng and other non-timber forest products (I.e. other medicinal plants like goldenseal, wild leaks, etc.). I’m also heading to China this month to visit Asian ginseng growers and to give a presentation at the Jilin Ginseng Research Institute, at the Changchun University of Chinese Medicine, in the Jilin province. One outcome that I am hoping for from this visit is to establish a relationship that could lead to future joint research in ginseng and other medicinal plants.