By Jean Giblette
Every so often I hear from East Asian Medicine practitioners or students who want to grow their own Chinese medicinal plants. Usually this impulse is not aimed toward production, which is a complex operation best left to professional farmers. Rather, they want to get their hands on actual plants, to get to know them better and admire their beauty. Perhaps they have a home garden, or a small garden area outside the clinic that can attract and educate patients.
To more easily satisfy these horticultural urges, here are my recommendations for five “backbone” plants, herbaceous perennials to group together for display. (Or, just to grow anywhere!) All five are very beautiful, germinate readily from seed at 70°F or over bottom heat, do well in mostly full sun, are relatively pest-free and easy to maintain, and can complement each other in a small garden bed.
In addition I recommend five “filler” plants to add contrasting textures and colors. You can get creative with this concept, filling in with annual vegetables or any well-behaved ornamental specimens. Note that vines or shrubs are not included here. Seed sources are noted.
Agastache rugosa (mint family), source of ⼟藿⾹ tŭ huò xiāng, Korean mint leaf. This herbaceous species resembles its cousin, anise hyssop or A. foeniculum. Perennial in Zone 6 and warmer, the plant can also be grown as an annual in the north. Dark green, highly aromatic leaves with reddish purple spikes, it forms a sturdy bush 2-3 feet high. Needs adequate moisture. Attracts bees and other pollinators. Plant in groups of 3, 5 or 7. Transplant radius 8-12 inches. Seed source: CMHF, JLH, KSC, Richters (see links at the end).
Aster tataricus (aster family), source of 紫菀 zĭ wǎn, Tatarian aster root. Unlike droopy native American asters, this plant sends up a sturdy, six-foot flower stalk in late summer and blooms a brilliant reddish purple in October. Cars stop on the road so the driver can ask what it is. Cut and remove stalks after blooming. The deep green basal clump expands by runners and must be trimmed back in spring. Tatarian aster should be planted as a focal point, in the back of a border, against a fence or in the center of a round bed. Very hardy and reliable with no known predators. Seed source: SM.
Belamcanda chinensis (iris family), source of 射⼲ shè gān, blackberry lily rhizome. An iris not a lily, this requires a well-drained soil without damp mulch at the base of the plant. Swordshaped light green leaves, orange red-spotted flowers in July and August on stalks 36 inches high are followed by shiny black seeds (like a large blackberry) in September. The rhizomes are bright yellow. Like other irises, the clump gets larger each year. Mulch with small rocks to prevent the stems from flopping over late in the season. Planting radius 12-18 inches. Seed source: CMHF, Richters.
Platycodon grandiflorus (bellflower family), source of 桔梗 jié gěng, balloonflower root. Balloon flower, long prized in the ornamental trade, has been hybridized for pink, white and variegated flower color. The wild medicinal plant has blue flowers only. Seeds should be black; the lighter color indicates a hybrid form. Late to emerge in spring, the plant gradually forms a clump of several stems to 24 inches in height, becoming more robust each year. Seedlings are slow growing and should be transplanted in individual pots and maintained for several weeks or months before setting out. Can self-sow under moist conditions. Seed source: CMHF, JLH, Richters, SM.
Scutellaria barbata (mint family), source of 半枝莲 bàn zhī lián, barbed skullcap herb. Low-growing but erect, 6-8 inches tall with pale purple flowers, this is understated but so impressive as a border plant. More delicate in form than the S. baicalensis but needs similar rock garden conditions. I’m recommending this one in preference to the S. baicalensis which sprawls out to three feet wide and is better suited to large spaces. S. barbata tends to form a small clump which can be separated and transplanted easily. Plant in masses or swaths at the border. Note the complement with white clover in the photo above. Planting radius 3-4 inches. Seed source: CMHF, SM.
Achillea alpina (=sibirica, aster family), source of ⾼⼭蓍 gāo shān shī, alpine yarrow herb. With ten endemic species of yarrow in China, plus the old standby A. millefolium introduced, there’s a lot to choose from. Achilleas are perennials and come in an array of colors, but I recommend white for complementing the lavenders and reds of the other plants. Since A. alpina seed is hard to find, fall back on A. millefolium which is ubiquitous throughout the northern temperate zone and is well recognized as a valuable medicinal herb. You might find live plants at a local garden center. Seed source: JLH, Richters, SM.
Celosia argentea (amaranth family), source of 青葙⼦ qīng xīang zĭ, wheatstraw seed. The ornamentals industry has gone crazy with the other Celosia, C. cristata (“chicken crown flower), and the stubby variations seen at your local big-box store don’t much resemble the real thing. But C. argentea has been exempt from such abuse. It’s an annual, true to its original form, a bushy 24-30 inch clump with multiple spiky flowerheads in a pale mauve color. Flower farmers have picked up this one as a good bouquet filler. Start it indoors in April in a plug flat and plant the plugs in between your perennials. Seed source: CMHF, JSS.
Dianthus superbus (pinks or carnation family), source of 瞿麦 qú mài, or Dianthus chinensis (=amurensis & others), ⽯⽵ shí zhú, Chinese pink herb. A variable genus with about 600 species in temperate zones and 16 in China, most used as ornamentals. These two perennial species, however, are considered medicinal. Less than a foot high with slightly sprawling, blue-green foliage, massed plants are useful for edging a bed or in the rock garden. Would look great planted near S. barbata, as the colors are complementary. If you buy seed labeled Dianthus chinensis, be prepared for a range of forms and colors from white to reddish purple depending on your seed source. That’s a catch-all category in the western ornamental trade. Planting radius: 6 inches. Seed source: SM.
Foeniculum vulgare (carrot family), source of ⼩茴⾹ xiǎo huí xiāng, fennel seed. The bronze version of edible leaf fennel will give you a delightful contrasting texture and color to decorate your patch. The plant can grow about 4 feet in height and can be trimmed back in midseason. The leaves are so finely cut than the overall effect is smoky or cloudy. It will be heavy with anise-flavored seeds in autumn. Classified as a tender perennial, the plant also self-sows freely. Some people might consider the self-sowing to be invasive but the roots are shallow and easily spaded out for transplant, so I prefer to think of its habit as a sign of abundance. Seed source: JSS, Richters.
Perilla frutescens (mint family), source of 紫苏⼦ & 叶 zĭ sū zĭ & yè, shiso seed & leaf. Another self-sowing annual, perilla is valuable for its contrasting foliage color. At least three forms are available; choose the red (left photo), a variable reddish purple, or the Britton (right) for purple on one side and green on the other. The plant will form a bushy shape 24-30 inches in height with a wonderful aroma, small pink flowers followed by seeds in August or September. See the above caution on self-sowing. Seed source: KSC, JSS, Richters.
February 1, 2022 Happy New Year of the Tiger!
High Falls Foundation, Inc. is proud to announce the reorganization of the New York Grown Chinese Medicinal Herbs group as ZAI SHENG HERBS (再⽣ zàishēng — “regeneration”).
We have set up a private e-commerce platform for direct sales to registered, licensed East Asian Medicine (EAM) practitioners. See the portal at ZaiShengHerbs.com.
- Our initial inventory includes three harvests of Huang Qi, two of Jie Geng, and one each of Bai Shao, Dan Shen, Dang Shen, Dong Kui Zi, Mao Zhi Mu and Niu Xi, plus wild-cultivated Xi Yang Shen in whole root form, most products prepared in dried traditional decoction pieces.
- Each product comes from a single farm. Our farms have various forms of organic certification, noted in the product description, but also each one is chosen for their dedication to regenerative and ecological practices.
- Starts are provided to farms by Zai Sheng Herbs to control for germplasm identity and quality. Most crops take a few years to grow to harvest stage. We visit the farms at least once per year, participate in the harvest, and supervise post-harvest preparation, packaging and shipping to customers, carried out on-farm in a NYS licensed commercial kitchen.
The Year of the Tiger is the time when US practitioners of EAM can demonstrate their determination to create an additional source of clean, ecologically-grown herbs, outside of China but grown in accordance with traditional standards.
Zai Sheng Herbs and High Falls Foundation are eager to welcome EAM customers who wish to participate in the development of domestic production. Together, we can create a secure, ongoing source of high-quality herbs for future health care needs.
REGISTER NOW! Even if you do not wish to buy herbs at present, your registration gives evidence to potential funders that an emerging market exists. Development funding is necessary to increase volume of production and provide adequate support for farmers. Additional donations are fully tax-deductible.
by Jean Giblette
While fears went viral during the lockdown spring of 2020, practitioners of Chinese medicine in West got first hand reports from their peers on the front lines in China.
Many stories remain unreported in this time of chaos, and few are more important than the efficacy of this ancient medicine against febrile epidemics and/or respiratory illness. While furloughed as “non-essential,” many Chinese herbal medicine practitioners have honed their skills through a veritable explosion of high-quality online study opportunities.
For the benefit of patients, farmers and other friends of Chinese or East Asian medicine (EAM), this article provides a small sampling of what is available to practitioners.
A run on Chinese herbs
As our friends are aware, EAM, also known as Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, has become well established in the West since 1970, and now has official status in over 100 countries throughout the world. In the USA, national certification and licensure in 46 states covers over 30,000 practitioners. The EAM modality is popular and established in several hospitals. Veterans have received free acupuncture in recent years, a result of the US Army’s discovery of the medicine’s effectiveness on the Iraqi battlefield.
Right after the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City, demand spiked for Chinese herbs as reported by the NY Post 1. Kamwo, the largest Chinese herbs dispensary on the East Coast, located in NY Chinatown, has long served the accounts of licensed practitioners by phone or online. Prescriptions are filled and then delivered directly to patients. Kamwo was so busy during the height of the caseload that it shut down its retail operation so that the entire staff (plus volunteers) could devote full time to filling prescriptions.
Although many practitioners, as “non-essential” workers, had to close their clinics their regular patients could be diagnosed over the phone. This advantage of a long-term relationship with a practitioner has only reinforced public support of EAM, which emphasizes preventive care along with individualized treatment. No wonder there was big demand for Chinese herbs in New York City.
A quick review of educational sources cited below shows how the EAM profession in China and the West is evolving into a world medicine. Keep in mind that these sources tend toward the “classical” schools of EAM as distinguished from TCM, the modern version of Chinese medicine. There is a plethora of TCM offerings widely available as well.
Overview and recommended formulas direct from Nanjing
The Shen Nong Society is the first professional association founded specifically for practitioners of East Asian herbal medicine in the USA 2. Their fourth annual conference was scheduled for the weekend of March 21-22 in Manhattan. To their credit, they were able to swiftly convert the whole program to an online format.
Streamed into the Shen Nong conference from Nanjing, Dr. Suzanne Robidoux provided participants an overview of how China responded at the outbreak of the novel virus. There was difficulty with the testing at first, so providers relied on CT scans to determine the extent of pathology in patients’ lungs. Severe cases were treated with antivirals, ventilation and whatever Western medicine had to offer.
Milder cases were treated with traditional medicine. EAM treats patients individually, according to their innate condition and symptom patterns. Patients received different herbal formulas depending on their condition and how far the disease has progressed. Dr. Robidoux spoke from her own direct experience with patients, and provided conference attendees with ample information on treatment strategies and formulas3.
Eventually, 85% of patients in China received acupuncture and/or herbs. Dr. Robidoux was still working under quarantine in Nanjing at the time of her presentation. She described how anyone coming down with sniffles or cough could use an app on their phone to summon a nurse and a pharmacist bearing herbs to the door of their home.
From the front lines in Wuhan
Even some severe cases could be cured with traditional medicine, concluded a volunteer team that went to Wuhan4. Headed by Dr. Liu Lihong, Professor Emeritus at a traditional medicine university in southern China, the team worked for over one month in a hospital at the height of the outbreak to treat patients with acupuncture and herbs. This account reads like an exciting epic journey. Despite obstacles, they were able to achieve improvements in the condition of every single patient they treated.
Skip the technical parts of this account and scroll down to the Q&A section. There is Dr. Liu’s plea for complementary cooperation between traditional and Western medicine. He also makes an eloquent argument for a general competency in the principles of Chinese medicine as a public health measure:
“If every person was to study Chinese medicine, if literally hundreds of millions of people understood the basics of this medicine and were able to use it to address at least some of their most common health problems, those with special skills and talents and the desire to go deeper will naturally begin to appear. These individuals can then go on to become fully trained physicians. In ancient times, this is how Chinese medicine doctors were produced.”
Senior teachers are a dependable guide
But to produce a fully trained Chinese herbal medicine doctor takes many years. After taking their degree and becoming licensed, many EAM practitioners follow a highly experienced, usually older teacher — a master. Live conferences and online courses with continuing education credits are ongoing. In an event like the emergence of a novel virus, communications from masters are important and influential.
To cite one example, again from the classical school, Dr. Huang Huang sent out a timely bulletin5. He reminds his students that it’s not necessary to know the exact nature of the pathogen in order to provide precise treatment. EAM assesses symptom patterns in the individual patient to devise the correct treatment strategy. (What an advantage this represents, when new viruses appear and then mutate with astonishing speed!) A patient can present a different set of symptoms depending on how far the disease has progressed; different formulas are required to address the exact pattern.
An excellent journal open to the public
The publishers of The Lantern, a respected journal of Chinese medicine, created an entire issue devoted to COVID-19 and made it available online at no cost6. Leading the issue, a fascinating historical account written by Volker Scheid examines how epidemics in China prompted re-evaluations of treatment strategies and shaped the evolution of Chinese medicine. The journal articles are evidence that this process continues.
High-quality translations are dissolving communications barriers East to West. Although traditional medicine currently has minority status in both the US and China, the scientific paradigm shift favors EAM. What was known 2,300 years ago is being re-examined in light of systems analysis and new findings in the microbiome, epigenetics, and other frontiers.
While the mainstream media ignores this transformation, hundreds of thousands of patients are benefitting from acupuncture, herbs, Qigong and other EAM therapies. Medicine, like agriculture, is and always has been empirical — an applied science. Practitioners use their best efforts to find what works.
Given a glimpse into the resources available to Western practitioners — including immediate access to reports from peers, a wide range of study sources, plus the recommendations of senior scholars — we can find reason to hope for the health care of the future.
It is only a matter of time until the paradigm shift in medicine becomes apparent and perhaps, once again, that time is shortened due to an epidemic.
by Jean Giblette
There I was, Wednesday the 22nd of April 1970, standing on the observation deck of the Prudential Tower, then the tallest building in Boston. Off to the east, thousands of people were gathered on the Common.
I felt the upwelling of an unfamiliar joy — the joy of survival? We who were young American adults at that moment had experienced years of trauma — societal leaders assassinated in rapid succession, countless demonstrations, multiple riots, people up against nominal authority shot to death and, of course, the brutal slaughter of innocent people in a distant country along with television views of family and friends coming home in body bags.
Later, on 15 September 2001, I again felt that joy – like a wave that washed over me – upon walking into an art gallery and spotting a familiar landscape painting by a local artist. Suddenly, the sheer beauty of my natural surroundings overwhelmed me and without much hesitation I laid down my credit card for what to me was a huge sum for the painting. Now it hangs on the wall of my home and serves to remind me with each glance how unutterably precious is this life on this Blue Planet.
The first Earth Day marked a turning point in the spiritual consciousness of my generation and, to various degrees, the world at large. I would retire that word “consciousness” which has been overused and exploited. What we felt was actually a kind of recognition. Rachel Carson and others had laid the groundwork. Suddenly, we remembered how embedded is our existence in nature, and how all our actions affect Mother Earth for better or worse.
We knew the times they were a changing, that we were stardust, golden, and had to get back to the Garden. The great bards born just ahead of us had prepared the way. JRR Tolkien’s little paperbacks had been published in the USA in 1965. Then after Earth Day more artistry reflected the recognition we felt: the writings of Wendell Berry, the iconic films Soylent Green and Silent Running, the ecological agriculture journal Acres USA, to name just a few examples.
Some of us, even those with no agriculture background, went back to the land to found organic farms that became prototypes for later efforts. A few people went to western Pacific countries to study Chinese medicine, and came back to the West to found a new alternative healthcare system. Another few took a cue from CJ Jung, then rediscovered and updated the ancient practice of astrology as a psychotherapeutic modality. These three social innovations have remained more or less under the radar or underground for fifty years, unacknowledged if not vilified by the conventional mass media.
For a while there was some progress. The establishment of the Clean Air Act, the EPA, the Endangered Species Act. Finally, woefully overdue, the end of the Vietnam War. Then the dinosaurs reasserted themselves.
Today, if one is still captivated by the fear-mongering, mind-numbing dinosaur media, it’s all but over. We are about to lose the battle against climate change, human rights have been curtailed, and the number of ways we can extinguish our species and others increases day by day.
If one is still working underground the outlook is different. We are cash poor, and must scurry like small mammals to avoid the lashing tails of the dying monsters. But the foundations have been laid. Enough people recognize them to insure they will prevail. After all, it is a matter of survival.
Ecological gardeners know from direct experience that even small efforts to conform to nature’s principles yield unexpected bounties. Changes come quietly, arising from the grassroots. We do not despair, for as the Bard said, “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
It’s been an amazing and joyful journey of rediscovery, 1970-2020.
By Jean Giblette
In the past three decades, several groups of North American farmers and practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine have explored the production of Chinese medicinal herbs. Such a goal is ecologically feasible, and desirable for the conservation of medicinal plants, but imposes socio-economic challenges for development. This report will describe the approach and methods used for domestic production, and the reasons for these choices. Finally, the advantages offered by Chinese medicinal herb production, both ecological and economical, will be outlined.
Why grow Chinese herbs in North America?
Traditional Chinese medicine has taken root in the United States, Canada and Mexico, among 100 countries throughout the world.1 In the U.S. (where it is known as Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine or East Asian Medicine), the new health profession developed over a 50-year period as an alternative to, and distinct from, Western medicine. With national certification under the U.S. Department of Education, licensure in 46 states,2 and over 30,000 licensed practitioners, this health care alternative has become a popular choice even though patients have paid fees without insurance reimbursement until very recently. Professional training has been accomplished in 50 graduate schools, separate from the existing university system.
The interest in Chinese medicinal herbs derived from the success of this health profession but also as an outgrowth of the organic agriculture movement. Both social movements began about 1970 and were “grass roots” in origin, involving voluntary associations of patients, farmers and other citizens who shared an idea that medicine and agriculture should do no harm. They questioned the overuse of pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals. Traditional herbal medicine and organic agriculture were seen as more holistic and healthier alternatives to large-scale, profit-seeking industrial systems.
As botanists have known since the 18th century, the plants of eastern Asia and eastern North America are closely related.3 To grow Asian versions of native medicinal plants seemed within reach. The varieties of habitat found in both continents are similar. Loss of habitat for wild medicinal plants is a worldwide problem, particularly in industrialized nations. Widely dispersed, farm based production using strict ecological methods that approximate the quality of wild plants is needed for species conservation.4
Practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine and their patients share a deep concern over herbal quality. The U.S. profession has relied upon trusted sourcing agents who import herbs from China and sell only to professionals, yet the supply chain seems increasingly fragile. Confusion exists over what constitutes herbal quality, how production methods affect the results and, even if products are certified organic, whether to trust the certifiers. Domestic production addresses these concerns because it seems to offer more transparency and local control.
Ecological agriculture goes back to its origins
The organic farming movement was inspired by a few earlier investigators, among them Franklin H. King. Dr. King was a scientist sent by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a mission to China, Japan and Korea in the first years of the 20th century to learn how their soils could retain fertility despite continuous farming over many centuries. Farmers of Forty Centuries was published in 1911 and has never gone out of print.5
In a remarkable example of cross-cultural exchanges of knowledge, one hundred years later Dr. Shi Yan interned on a small Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm in Minnesota, then returned to China to establish the first CSA in 2008. Among her many other accomplishments, she helped to translate and publish Farmers of Forty Centuries in China.
It is now widely acknowledged that China originated ecological agriculture, along with the most highly developed and documented system of herbal medicine in the world. At present, however, much if not most medicinal herb production in China uses conventional methods including monocropping and agrochemicals. (Many herbs are still gathered from the wild.)
Meanwhile, organic medicinal herb farmers in North America produce crops entirely without chemicals or synthetic inputs. For example, ginseng is being wild-cultivated in forests without tillage or disturbing the soil, without fertilizer or any synthetics, and in polycultures with companion plants. Individual smallholdings scattered throughout the Appalachian Mountains area are pioneering the wild-cultivated methods. The results are indistinguishable from wild ginseng roots.
More exchanges of knowledge are needed. The struggle to sustain high standards, small family farms, and resilient, economically viable communities is shared by the United States and China, among other nations. The North American experience with ecological agriculture is highly relevant to attempts to solve common problems.
After the U.S. federal government regulated organic agriculture, large corporations began to use their political power to weaken organic standards to gain profits. This led to a counter-movement known as “local” agriculture, meaning that a buyer could seek out nearby farms and get to know the farmer and his/her practices, in preference to relying solely upon official certification.
Next, innovative farmers sought to redefine organic standards using words that distinguished their practices beyond the mere refusal to use chemicals. At present, informed citizens understand that ecological agriculture means more than no chemicals, it is also an intensive series of practices to restore and build soil.
Scientific advances around the turn of the century spurred this awareness. Scientists began to understand that the microbiome—all the microbes in the soil, air, and in human bodies—is far more extensive and complex than was previously acknowledged. Agriculture and medicine are just beginning to grasp the implications of these findings.
In agriculture, the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides greatly reduces the microbial diversity in the soil, as well as in the surrounding habitat and groundwater. Reduced biodiversity means that the plants are not getting the nutrition they need. Poor nutrition leads to disease, and farmers respond with more chemicals.6
In the human gut, microbes break down food and make it assimilable, thereby playing a major or even primary role in nutrition. Scientists are finding more diseases that result from imbalances or lack of diversity in the gut microbes.7
Therefore, all traditional perceptions regarding soil, plant, animal, and human health—including the need for great diversity and balance in the ecosystem—are being confirmed by 21st century science. We need more organisms under the ground than above ground.
Ecological agriculture is now regenerative agriculture
Today there is a worldwide movement toward “regenerative” agriculture that seeks to rectify the harm caused by conventional agriculture. Farmers are literally healing their lands – by reducing soil erosion and sedimentation of rivers, lakes and streams, also increasing wildlife habitat and the ability of the soil to hold moisture and thereby withstand drought. They also sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide in soil organic matter. Regenerative agriculture encourages plant roots to go deep into the soil. Reforestation brings water up out of the ground and releases it into the atmosphere, thereby increasing rainfall and cooling the earth.
Regenerative practices include:
- Minimal mechanical disturbance (tillage), also known as “no-till”
Tillage destroys soil structure. Mycorrhizal fungi exude a glue-like substance that aggregates soil, to provide homes for the microbes and open spaces for water infiltration.8 Tillage also reduces organic matter in the soil and increases weed pressure. Use of synthetic fertilizers kills the soil fungi.
- Continuous coverage of the soil
When the sun shines on bare soil, moisture is lost, and when soil temperature reaches 60°C the microbes begin to die. Cover crops or living mulches are used extensively to assist water infiltration and keep the soil cool.9 Cover crops can be chosen for different functions in the particular plot or field, for example, to transfer atmospheric nitrogen to the soil.
- Increased biodiversity directly proportional to soil health
Monocultures decrease soil health by reducing variety and balance in the microbiome. Combinations of multiple species of cover crops can be used to improve biodiversity in pastures. Mycorrhizal fungi connect different species of plants, increasing the nutrient flow among plants and microbes.10 Intercropping, planting adjacent rows of different plants, or planting crops among trees, is an excellent way to increase biodiversity. Crop rotations help prevent pest infestation.
- Maximal living root systems (perennial plants) on the farm
Deeply rooted plants open up the soil to air and water. Herbaceous perennial plants, shrubs and trees insure a continuous presence of living roots. The more photosynthesis takes place, the more solar energy is being cycled, and the more carbon stored in the soil.11
- Animals necessary for crop production
Integrating livestock into the operation means that animal manures are available for the fertility cycle. Grazing pressure stimulates plant growth, breaks up compacted soil, and preserves biodiversity. Rotational or “mob” grazing concentrates the animals on one section of pasture for a short time and then moves them to another, insuring that the grasses regenerate.12
Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are an environmental problem dangerous to animal and human health. Too much phosphorus is released into the environment from concentrated manures. Animals should be on pasture where their manures become available to dung beetles and other scavengers then are quickly broken down by microbes and integrated into the soil.
Chinese medicinal herb production is regenerative
Most Chinese medicinal plants are herbaceous perennials, understory vines, shrubs or trees and do not require tillage. They can be planted in intercropped rows, orchards or forests without disturbing the soil. They can be a component of windbreaks, hedgerows, ponds or other functional features in the landscape.
In the United States, farmers are working from a carefully chosen list of 150 Chinese herbs desired by medical practitioners. There is a plant for every habitat. Most of the species offer ecosystem benefits such as additional biodiversity, food for pollinators, shade for understory plants, ground cover, deep roots and carbon sequestration.
Most farms do not specialize in medicinal plants but add one or two crops to diversify their operation. Perennial crops are seen as complements to annual vegetables or pastured animals. Farmers want to preserve the farm for their children and grandchildren; they recognize that Chinese medicinal herbs have been valued for thousands of years, and will hold their value for decades to come.
Although often they must wait 5, 10, or even 20 years before the plants yield a harvest, some farmers can afford to wait. If they are working in a group or cooperative, many of the costs of production can be shared. It can be more important to a farmer to have an assured market for a product than to make a quick profit. If the cooperative covers the cost of marketing and sales, the farmer is relieved of a considerable burden.
Chinese herbal medicine is based on traditional formulas, or combinations of herbs. The challenge thus presented is to market an array of related products rather than a large volume of one commodity. This challenge is yet another reason for a cooperative approach to production, and thus presents an opportunity to avoid competition among farmers.
The local movement in agriculture has shown farmers that direct marketing yields the highest return. They sell direct to customers at farmers’ markets, through Community Supported Agriculture, on farm stands or farm stores where customers come to pick up and pay. For Chinese medicinal herbs, marketing agricultural products directly to licensed herbal practitioners is the way for farmers to get the highest return.
Ecological production of Chinese herbs is feasible but will take another decade to develop in North America. Groups in Canada, the United States and Mexico are now trying to find financing to coordinate production and support the farmers. In China, farmers need public support to regenerate their soils and produce food and herbs of the highest quality without synthetics. It is hoped that the recent North America experience can inspire China, just as China inspired the organic movement in North America. More scientific and cultural exchanges are needed to find solutions to common problems.
1 World Health Organization, 2013. WHO traditional medicine strategy: 2014-2023, p. 22 https://www.who.int/medicines/publications/traditional/trm_strategy14_23/en/
2 National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, Washington DC https://www.nccaom.org/state-licensure/
3 Boufford DE and SA Spongberg, 1983. Eastern Asian – Eastern North American phytogeographical relationships: A history from the time of Linnaeus to the twentieth century. Ann. Missouri Bot. Gard. 70:423-439. http://flora.huh.harvard.edu/china/novon/eaena.htm
4 Giblette JM, 2006. “The role of cultivation in conserving medicinal plants,” in Call E (ed) Mending the Web of Life: Chinese medicine and species conservation (Washington DC: IFAW and AHPA-ERB Foundation), pp 251-264.
5 King FH, 1911. Farmers of Forty Centuries (Emmaus PA: Rodale Press, reprinted 1973).
6 Berendsen RL et al, 2012. The rhizosphere microbiome and plant health, Trends in Plant Science 7(8): 441-502.
7 Quigley EMM, 2013. “Gut bacteria in health and disease,” Gastroenterology and Hepatology 9(9): 560–569.
8 Rillig MC, 2004. Arbuscular mycorrhizae, glomalin, and soil aggregation. Canadian Journal of Soil Science 84, 355–363.
9 Wittwer RA et al, 2017. Cover crops support ecological intensification of arable cropping systems. Sci. Rep. 7, 41911.
10 Yang Gaowen et al, 2018. How soil biota drive ecosystem stability, Trends in Plant Science, 23(12).
11 Yang Yi et al, 2019. Soil carbon sequestration accelerated by restoration of grassland biodiversity, Nature Communications 10, 718.
12 Clark AE, 2004. Benefits of re-integrating livestock and forages in crop production systems, Journal of Crop Improvement 12(1); 405-436.
*Jean Giblette has grown Chinese medicinal plants at her farm in the Hudson Valley of New York, USA since 1993. She is a founder and on the Board of Directors of High Falls Foundation Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to medicinal plant conservation, research and education. She has written or coauthored numerous articles including papers in the last two New Crops volumes published by Purdue University. Contact her at info@HighFallsGardens.net.
Book Review: First published in the Shen Nong Society Newsletter, August 2018
Chinese Medicinal Plants, Herbal Drugs and Substitutes: An Identification Guide, by Christine Leon and Lin Yu-Lin, is the result of a collaboration between Kew Gardens in England and the Institute of Medicinal Plant Development (IMPLAD) headquartered in Beijing. This splendid, 800-page text (the Guide) contains thousands of full-color photos of medicinal plants in whole form and as medicinal parts both raw and processed. Following the official Chinese Pharmacopoeia, 226 herbs are described, listing the standard species as well as official and unofficial substitutes. The herbs are organized by plant part: rhizomes, roots, tubers/bulbs, aerial parts/whole plants, stems, leaves, flowers, and so on. This Guide is a welcome addition to the reference literature, useful to herbal dispensary managers, purchasers and producers of Chinese herbs.
A copy purchased in March 2018 from the Kew online store cost £150 or $216 including shipping. The price alone limits the Guide’s accessibility to institutions and those working within the herbal supply chains. It cannot be construed as the ultimate authority on the subject. Comparisons among multiple references are always necessary, for any one written guide or compendium of photos is limited in comparison to nature’s infinite variety. For example, certain minor details in the Guide contrast with my own direct experience of the plants. That’s not a criticism, it’s something to be expected in field botany.
In the Guide’s introductions, the Kew’s taxonomic references are compared favorably with those of Flora of China (which are characterized as “static”), betraying an institutional bias. I rely primarily on the online Flora of China, their science being impartial and the text forthright concerning disagreements among scientists, or confusion existing over any one taxonomic category.
The Guide is a testament to the heavy domination of the research institutes, in China and the West, by the agrochemical and pharmaceutical industries (now in the process of consolidation, witness the impending Monsanto-Bayer merger). The authors have achieved a rare degree of success, no doubt the result of a labor of love. Typically, however, they seem unaware of their biases. For starters, I object to the use of the English word “drug” in this context. Yes, the word is often used in TCM translations. However, I regard its use as industry propaganda. The term conflates whole plant material with extracted biochemicals used to manufacture pharmaceuticals, and thus tends to normalize the reduction of the materia medica.
Industry interests are well served by the ongoing effort to narrow the definitions of the herbs used traditionally in Chinese medicine. If an herb definition is localized to one “di dao” area, and reference specimens collected (as was done for the Guide), their biochemical constituents profiled, then pharmaceutical drug development can proceed. All this work accomplished for industry requirements is justified by the need for correct identification and “good standards.”
Almost every photo of production areas shows a monocropped setting. In at least one instance, the caption of a plant photo notes the spots on the leaves as pesticide residue, without comment, as if only to be expected. The authors appear to be innocent of the causal relationship of monocrop practices to pesticide use. Monocropping (and its concomitant need for artificial fertilizers) invites pests. “Pests” are nature’s way of taking out unhealthy plants. Monocropped plants are unhealthy because the diversity of the soil microbiome has been reduced and the plant cannot get a full complement of nutrients. These scientific findings are less than thirty years old, and have yet to become common knowledge.
Please understand that GAP (Good Agricultural Practice) standards allow for monocropping and the use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. “Certified organic” allows for monocropping. The acronym IPM (Integrated Pest Management) is used to suggest high standards but in fact means an attempt to minimize, not eliminate, pesticide sprays. The use of the “di dao” appellation has been questioned by careful observers, as pressures to increase production in di dao areas sometimes prompt the use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. The use of the term “sustainable,” paraded like a flag in the introduction to the Guide, is another propaganda word, green-washing to describe settings that may or may not admit the practices of industrial agriculture.
It’s not as if ecological agriculture is unknown in China; after all, it was invented by the Chinese thousands of years ago. An environmental movement is alive and well in China; rural development is better supported by the federal government than it is in the West. Highly diversified and balanced small farm settings that encompass intercropping arrangements specifically to produce medicinal plants are described in great detail in the 2001 publication Agro-Ecological Farming Systems in China, edited by Li Wenhua. (Man and the Biosphere Series Vol. 26, UNESCO and New York: Parthenon Publishing Group).
Practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine: We must become better aware of the politics involved in the contest between industrial medicine and agriculture versus traditional medicine and ecological agriculture. The health of our patients depends upon the health of the plants and animals they consume, which in turn depends on the health of the soil. Our medicine comes directly from the earth, and when that relationship is not given the respect it deserves our health suffers. What we have in this splendid new reference guide is an illustration of a maxim hotly contested in China: “Get rich now, clean up later.” Fortunately for us, opinion in China seems to be shifting in favor of a better balance between economic and ecological concerns.
We need not settle for half measures. Grass-roots local food movements in the USA since 1990 have changed food purchase behavior to the point where the supermarket industry reports the “hollowing out” of their stores – packaged foods in the center aisles are losing money while fresh foods on the periphery are gaining. They recognize the nation’s 10,000 farmers markets as their chief competitors and adopt signage that evokes the style of local direct farm to people transactions.
If we can do this for food, we can do it for our herbs. The goal of Ecological Civilization has been written into the Chinese constitution. President Xi is known for his commitment to it. Do not be deceived by the use of terms such as GAP, IPM, “sustainable” and even “certified organic.” Demand precise definitions and higher standards. Support the return to ecological agriculture in China, and “restoration agriculture” (the new popular term) here in North America.
“There is more to growing herbs than understanding plants. There are the considerations of soil, economic environment, weather patterns, cultural and market forces, and the kind of eye and vision that can see the interactions of these forces not just over seasons, but years or decades.
In this conversation we explore the cultivation of Chinese herbs here in the West with one of the pioneers of the movement to bring domestic cultivation of Chinese herbs from a curiosity to viable economic reality.
Listen in for a glimpse the ecosystem required that makes domestic production of Chinese medicinals a possibility.”
By Jean Giblette, first published 2013
Invasive, exotic plants are a favorite target of outrage within our public institutions and private gardening clubs. Some of the rhetoric is rather colorful:
Day by day, acre by acre, aliens are quietly spreading throughout America. They arrive by air, in ships, and over highways. They don’t carry identification, and they don’t stop at borders. Despite dozens of vigilant government agencies, including the Department of Defense, on the lookout — they slip in.
By Jean Giblette, first published 2012
The North American Tang Shou Tao Association is to be congratulated for carrying forward a
form of ancient Asian wisdom, helping it take root on a new continent but with great care for the preservation of traditional values.