We try to keep things pretty simple around here. Take ingredient names. Wherever possible, we list the common English names for our herbs instead of the botanical or Chinese names, since that seems generally easier for folks. But simple isn’t always easy. Recently, one herb taught us a lesson about the value of using words precisely, and it’s the subject of this spotlight.
The botanical name for the herb in question is Eleutherococcus senticosus, an ingredient used in two Herbalogic formulas. You may know this ten-syllable mouthful by its once-common name, “Siberian ginseng.” We certainly did, and that’s what we were prepared to put on the labels headed for the printer — at least until we learned, much to our surprise, that doing so would be illegal. Suddenly, we had our very own “Stop the presses!” moment.
Eleutherococcus senticosus (a.k.a. Acanthopanax senticosus)
Common Name (Western)
"Siberian ginseng" if you want to get in trouble, "eleuthero" if you don’t. Sometimes "Siberian eleuthero."
Chinese Name (Pin Yin)
Ci Wu Jia (a.k.a. Wu Jia Shen)
It grows wild in the mountain forests of E. Asia, China, Japan, and Russia. (Yes, it actually grows in Siberia.)
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Eleutherococcus senticosus is a slow-growing shrub that reaches about six feet tall, isn’t too picky about what kind of soil it grows in, and is hardy to zone 3, which means it can survive winters as cold as -35F. (Brrrr.)
It is a member of the Araliaceae family, consisting of plants of the damp forest with umbels (not compound) that produce berries. This family contains 70 genera with about 700 species.
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Eleuthero is fairly new on the scene for traditional Chinese medicine, but it is listed as having two primary functions:
INCREASES STAMINA. The literature suggests that this function is mild, and that other tonic herbs should be used in combination with Eleuthero. Interestingly, Russian athletes and cosmonauts were given Eleuthero to increase stamina and focus.
CALMS THE SPIRIT. It seems odd that an herb that increases stamina would also help calm the body and the mind, but that is the nature of adaptogenic herbs; plants that help with stamina and fatigue are not always stimulants, and plants that calm us are not always sedatives. Adaptogenic plants can do both at the same time, usually through different mechanisms than the stimulating and sedating drugs we are used to.
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Eleuthero is very safe when taken at normal doses. If you are hypertensive, pregnant, nursing, or already take Western drugs, you should consult a healthcare professional before taking any over the counter supplements.
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Uses in Herbalogic Quiet Mind & Fixed Focus
You'll find the herb listed correctly on two Herbalogic families of formulas, Quiet Mind and Fixed Focus. Eleuthero does a fantastic job promoting two apparently contradictory things: supporting healthy energy levels and keeping the mind and body calm.
Eleuthero does double duty in Herbalogic Quiet Mind. First and foremost it calms the sprit, which is Chinese medicine speak for helps with situational anxiousness. Second, it improves stamina, because, let's face it, being mentally twisted up in knots is exhausting.
Because of taxonomical oddities, a lot of confusion surrounds Eleuthero. First, the same plant was given two Western scientific names. To complicate matters, Chinese herbalogy refers to the plant with two names of its own. Finally, there are closely-related plants that are sometimes referred to with the generic “eleuthero.” Here’s a bit of clarification:
Eleutherococcus senticosus and Acanthopanax senticosus are scientific names for the same plant, commonly called Eleuthero. In Chinese, Eleuthero is called Ci Wu Jia, but it might also be called Wu Jia Shen. All of these names refer to the same plant, the one we use in Herbalogic formulas.
A related plant has a similar naming dilemma: Eleutherococcus gracilistylus is the same thing as Acanthopanax gracilistylus. In Chinese, it is known as Wu Jia Pi. However, in quite a bit of the translated herbal literature, it is referred to as “Eleutherococcus,” making it difficult to distinguish from its close cousin. All of which illustrates precisely why you want to consult a well-trained herbalist.
For those who want to go full geek on Eleuthero, here's a burning question: Why go from a perfectly good name like "Siberian ginseng" to "Eleuthero" anyway?
Eleutherococcus senticosus has some of the same medicinal properties as ginseng, but it’s not a true ginseng like its distant and more expensive cousins Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). Both belong to the Araliaceae family, but each belongs to a different genus. Herbalists found, however, that with Eleuthero they could forego paying the premium for Panax ginsengs and still get good results, and so the herb’s popularity grew. Because Eleuthero grows in Siberia and shares functional benefits with the true ginsengs, it began to be marketed as “Siberian” ginseng.
Wisconsin ginseng growers, who have a 100-year history of producing the more-difficult-to-grow American ginseng, thought that co-opting the name “ginseng” for a non-Panax herb would lead to consumer confusion. It would also hurt their business. When they started to see sales drop, they got politically active. In an unsurprising bit of protectionist lobbying, the Wisconsin Ginseng Board had a provision inserted into the 2002 farm bill to define ginseng as a plant of the genus Panax. From then on, using “Siberian ginseng” became illegal in the U.S. and was replaced by “Eleuthero.”
Incidentally, "Panax" comes from the same Greek root that gives us the word, “panacea” or cure-all. It is a name given by none other than Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, and was an indication of how important the plant was in Chinese ethnomedicine. The alternate name for the genus Eleutherococcus is Acanthopanax, a word that combines Greek roots and means “spiny cure all.”
An excellent resource for learning more is this monograph on Eleuthero by the World Health Organization.