Ginsing in Gotham

The city’s first public botanical garden cultivated ginsing, but its medicinal properties were only widely recognized when New Yorkers embraced Chinese medicine 

By Jessica Camille Aguirre

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A view of New York City’s first botanical garden, created by physician David Hosack in 1801, at Fifth Avenue and 50 Street. (New York Public Library Digital Collection)

At the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 50 Street, a Banana Republic now stands at the site of America’s first public botanical garden. Opened in 1801 by David Hosack, a physician and botanist who once treated Alexander Hamilton, the garden endured for little more than a decade before it was taken over by Columbia University and turned into more profitable rental properties.

Before the garden vanished, though, it was a site for medical exploration. According to the July 1811 American Medical and Philosophical Register, “A primary object of attention in this establishment was to collect and cultivate the native plants of this country, especially such as possess medicinal properties or are otherwise useful.”

One of those plants was Panax quinquefolius, or American ginseng, a root herb that Native Americans apparently used for medical and cultural needs. Hosack does not seem to have experimented with the herb, however, and it was not incorporated into standard American medical practice during the 19th century.

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American ginsing, Panax quinquifolius, painted in the early 1800s by Jacob Bigelow.

Americans instead seem to have discovered the herb a century later by way of China, where the plant is a cornerstone of traditional remedies. An account from New York Times reporter James Reston about undergoing acupuncture while accompanying President Nixon on a trip to China in 1971 is credited with sparking U.S. interest in Chinese healing. But as Gwen Kinkead noted in her 1992 book Chinatown: Portrait of a Closed Society, medical researchers also became committed to discovering the active ingredients of effective herbs at about the same time.

“Doctors in this country understand the limits of herbal medicines,” she wrote. “They are no substitutes for surgery in most cases, nor can they be used to discover the pathology of a disease. But in certain instances, for example, post-radiation cancer therapy, they have proved useful in preventing hair loss and increasing stamina by activating the body’s immune system in ways Western researchers cannot yet explain.”

Activating the body’s immune system and balancing energy are considered fundamental in traditional Chinese healthcare. Thus the ginseng: “American ginseng cools down an overheated body,” Kinkead wrote, quoting healer Mei Fong Ng. “After you have drunk or smoked too much, or gone out dancing too late, for instance, you drink a cup of steamed ginseng. It’s a thin, red, wry-tasting liquid—helps you recover your pep.” The mode of healing—centered around balancing yin and yang forces—had bloomed in little pharmacies and shops around New York City more than a century before Reston’s account popularized the approach in the U.S.

In Chinatown, near Canal Street on the Lower East Side, influxes of immigrants began to create expatriate communities in the mid-19th century as national westward railroad construction began to dwindle. In newly forming neighborhoods, retail and healthcare infrastructures began to accommodate immigrant preferences. As Chinese medicine scholar Linda Barnes wrote, “Every time Chinese immigrants came into any place they brought medicine with them, which was practiced among their own communities and groups. But all the way throughout there is evidence showing that they extended those practices to the people around them if those people were receptive, interested or seeking help.”

In Chinese communities, though, the practices of integration extended both ways. On Mott Street, dry goods purveyor Sun Goon Shing—a popular all-purpose shop for local laborers founded in 1929—incorporated quotidian household items with imported medicine in a cross-cultural mishmash that put pragmatism first.

In a dissertation submitted for a political science degree at the New School for Social Research in September 1983, M. Louise Duval observed that healing practices in Chinatown take a piecemeal approach—including habitual routines of self-care, traditional remedies as well as biomedical practice. “Folk herbal remedies and acupuncture are the types of treatment used because it is thought they will cure the underlying cause and not disturb the body’s balance,” Duval wrote. “Adults that are ill are first treated in the home and if there is no symptom relief they resort to a biomedical or traditional practitioner.”

Chinatown’s herbal remedy shops still flourish. But Hosack’s botanical garden has been overcome by modernity. And a Banana Republic.

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