Pursuing a Long-time Passion
Chinese herbs are a passion of mine, dating back before I even knew I wanted to be an herbalist. Between 1979 and 2001, whenever I visited the Chan Center, the part-time home to my most influential teacher, Buddhist master and scholar Shifu Chang Sheng-yen, there was always some mysterious herbal concoction brewing on the kitchen stove. I practically lived there myself, as I was seriously contemplating becoming a monk, and so I absorbed a lot of Chinese culture, including herbal medicine. I never did become a monk, but much of what I learned then is now an integral part of my life, craft, school, and business. Little did I know back then that thirty-five years later I’d be a full-time herbalist, teaching Chinese medicine and philosophy at Clearpath School of Herbal Medicine, using Chinese herbs daily in my health-care practice, and growing Chinese herbs at Clearpath Medicine Gardens.
In my apothecary of 275-300 tinctures and glycerites, about seventy-five of them are Chinese herbs, or roughly 25% of my inventory. I am keenly interested in familiarizing myself to the best of my abilities with all of the herbs I use. Most Western herbs that I use I either grow or wildcraft, and I try as much as possible to do the same with the Chinese herbs that I use. Many are actually already here, growing naturally across the globe, or they have been introduced to this continent for one reason or another. Others I have had to be more proactive about getting to know, which is why I have a passion for growing Chinese herbs.
Picking the Right Chinese Herbs for Your Garden
Fortunately, no matter where you live in the northern hemisphere, there is likely an ecosystem in China that matches it. For this reason, growing Chinese herbs is not as foreign a proposition as it might seem. Sure, there are some species that are exceedingly difficult to germinate, and there are some species that are almost impossible to find seeds or seedlings for. But there are many that you can find, and that are relatively easy to germinate and cultivate. I live in New England, zone 3-6 agriculturally speaking, with good precipitation. It is lush and green early May through mid October. Growing Chinese herbs can be successful here, as long as you choose the right ones.
Here is a list of the Chinese herbs that I am actively growing in my gardens, for education and for supplying my apothecary needs:
- Astragalus/Huang qi (A. membranaceus): adaptogen, yin tonic
- Codonopsis/Dang shen (C. pilosula): adaptogen, yin tonic
- Licorice/Gan cao (Glychyrizza uralensis): adaptogen, harmonizer
- Balloon Flower/Jie gung (Platycodon grandiflorus): respiratory tonic
- Red Root Sage/Dan shen (Salvia miltiorhizza): blood-qi mover, female reproductive tonic
- Baikal Skullcap/Huang qin (Scutellaria baicalensis): immune medicine
- White Peony/Bai shao (Paeonia lactiflora): qi mover, female reproductive tonic
- Dong quai/Dang gui (Angelica sinensis): premier female reproductive tonic
- Gynostemma/Jiao gu lan (G. pentaphyllum): adaptogen
- Andrographis/Chuan xin lian (A. paniculata): immune medicine
- Sophora/Ku shen (S. flavescens): immune medicine
- Houttuynia/Ying xing cao (H. cordata): infection relief
As time goes on, my intention is to grow as many of the Chinese herbs that I use in my gardens. Some are annuals, some biennials, and some perennials. Some are delicate herbaceous plants, some hardy shrubs, and some trees. Some of them I may never use for medicine. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I will really get to know the plant, like a friend I visit frequently for a long time.
Gardeners May Already be Growing Chinese Medicines
You never know. There are some plants that we grow as ornamentals for their beauty that the Chinese use for medicine. One of these is Platycodon grandiflorus, commonly called balloon flower (Chinese: jie gung), grown for its beauty. The root happens to be a versatile respiratory tonic. It is aptly named for its purple, inflated-like-a-balloon flower, and it is an easy way to remember its beneficial effect on lungs and respiratory airways.
Tiger lily (Lilium lancifolium, Chinese name: bai he) bulb is a sweet edible, a nutritive tonic for weakened vitality and lungs. It feels like nature is giving us bonus on top of bonus when things like this exist: easy-to-grow, beautiful flowers, nutritious food, AND valuable medicine! It’s a trifecta! Growing Chinese herbs is a passion of mine I hope to spread to others, for as you may now see, you may already be doing it and don’t even know it.
Interested in Chinese Herbal Medicine? This year’s Foundations of Chinese Herbal Medicine begins March 29th! Learn more and register for this 10-week intensive course.
Also, stay tuned for more blogs about Chinese herbs, gardens and wildcrafting news, and classes and courses where this and more like it is taught throughout the year. And every Monday during the growing season the gardens are open to visit, to help out, and to get to know about medicinal plants, including growing Chinese herbs.