The Panax genus is a crucial source of natural medicines that has benefited human health for a long time. Three valuable medicinal herbs, namely Panax ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, and Panax notoginseng, have received considerable interest due to their extensive application in clinical therapy, healthcare products, and as foods and food additives world-wide. Panax species are known to contain abundant levels of saponins, also dubbed ginsenosides, which refer to a series of dammarane or oleanane type triterpenoid glycosides. These saponins exhibit modulatory effects to the central nervous system and beneficial effects to patients suffering from cardiovascular diseases, and also have anti-diabetic and anti-tumor properties. To the end of 2012, at least 289 saponins were reported from eleven different Panax species. This comprehensive review describes the advances in the phytochemistry of the genus Panax for the period 1963-2012, based on the 134 cited references. The reported saponins can be classified into protopanaxadiol, protopanaxatriol, octillol, oleanolic acid, C17 side-chain varied, and miscellaneous subtypes, according to structural differences in sapogenins. The investigational history of Panax is also reviewed, with special attention being paid to the structural features of the six different subtypes, together with their (1)H and (13)C NMR spectroscopic characteristics which are useful for determining their structures and absolute configuration.
Keywords: Araliaceae; Chemical diversity; Panax genus; Panax ginseng; Panax notoginseng; Panax quinquefolius; Saponins; Subtype classification.
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