Friday, July 9, 2010

A rhizome by any other name...

Danica reminded me today that I had promised to explain where the name "Siberian Ginseng" came from, but had not yet delivered. The shame!

The story begins in 2006, my first year of postgraduate studies. In second semester I had the opportunity to tutor in an introductory level unit, which I had studied as a fresh-faced undergrad back in 2000.

(Does everyone remember the millennium? How the ATMs didn't stop working at midnight, all computers didn't instantly crash, and how the friendless millennium denialists went on about how it wasn't really the millennium because there had not been a year zero, thus missing the point entirely? Ah, good times.)

I digress.

One of the set texts for the unit was Andrei Makine's Once Upon the River Love, a tale of three boys growing up in Siberia in the 1970s. They are each driven by dissatisfaction in their everyday lives, each inspired by a particular image of the West. There's a lot of East-West symbolism in the book, so there can be a lot to unpack, but it's a relatively easy read.

As I was preparing for the tutorial on the novel, I tried to anticipate some questions the students might have about the text. The first thing that came to mind was the mysterious Kharg root, a semi-mythical plant the boys come across. Pages 17-18 of the Text Publishing 1999 edition:

We looked closely at the Kharg root. Without admitting it to ourselves, we sensed that there was something feminine about its shape. It was, in fact, a kind of plump, dark-hued pear, with a skin like suede, slightly cracked, the underside was covered in purplish down. From the top to bottom the root was divided by a groove that resembled the line of a vertebral column.
The Kharg was very pleasant to touch. Its velvety skin seemed to respond to contact with the fingers. This bulb with its sensual contours hinted at a strange life that animated its mysterious interior.
Phwoar! I reasoned that the students would be interested to know if this was a real plant, was it really a euphoriant, or had the author invented this extraordinarily erotic plant to explore some aspects of the boys' sexual coming of age ( it were, nudge nudge wink wink)?

I'll have you know that googling kharg+plant is pretty much useless, as there is a petrochemical plant on Kharg island in Iran. Among the noise that comes up with kharg+root is one result that mentions the novel. It's on a plant taxonomers' mailing list from 1999 and goes like this:

A friend of mine showed me the book "Au temps du fleuve Amour" by
Andrei Makine. Among the wonders of the deep taiga forests of the
Russian Far East by the River Amur the author tells that the fleshy
rhizome of a plant called "Kharg-racine", Kharg-root, is praised by
the local people for its medicinal powers. For translation purposes
by my friend it would be good to know what sort of plant is in
question, but I cannot find it out from the books available. Could
anyone possibly give some advice. I have every reason to believe that
this is not just an imaginary plant.

No replies.

From there followed hours of trawling through online plant guides for Far Eastern euphoriants. When your search query also brings up sites like "The History of Hashish", you thank your lucky stars you decided not to do your research in the library...

Along the way I found some likely suspects, although no description lives up to the one by Makine. Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and roseroot (Rhodiola rosea) rhizomes have been used in traditional medicine and, according to some studies at least, can have some positive effect on immunity and mood. I started to think, as a clear winner became hard to establish, that perhaps the students could accept some uncertainty about the subject. Surely I was a confident enough person to just say "I don't know", and we could all move on with our lives?

Then came the tutorial itself, and not a single soul expressed any interest in the Kharg root. No one asked me about it.

No one has asked me about it in the four years since.

I named the blog "Siberian Ginseng" as a sort of tribute to my escapade of overpreparedness. "Siberian Ginseng", I think, sounds nicer - and certainly more compact - than "I really hope all the unnecessary things I've wasted time on turn out to actually be super-useful in the future, when my penchant for knitting, tea-drinking and David Mitchell make me a Queen of the human race."*

So there we go.


Epilogue: When I started writing this I revisited some of the sites I trawled through all those years ago, and found some new leads that passed me by last time. It is entirely possible that "Siberian Ginseng" should have been called "Siberian Iris" (iris sibirica).

I haven't been able to find information on the Siberian iris root being used for medicinal purposes - some iris bulbs are used for perfumes, but not the Siberian iris specifically, and the root could in fact be poisonous - and given it is a flower descriptions tend to focus on what's above ground and not what's below it, but if the Kharg root is an iris bulb, then of course it adds a lot to the whole East-West discussion when compared with, say, the fleur-de-lis as a symbol of all that is French and refined.

*N.B. I don't actually think that knitting, tea-drinking and David Mitchell are unnecessary.


  1. Sanna, Sanna, you are a woman after my own heart. Your overpreparedness reeks of my overpreparedness for my first year of teaching - I don't even want to tell you what I did.

  2. i got a mention, hence i am famous! i like the concept behind the title - it ties together all the various topics of your blog very nicely.