Kimberly Bretz

Spring is here early this year. Soon, the ‘jade lilly’ blossoms of the Yulan magnolias (Magnolia denudata) will be in bloom. In China, it is most often planted in temple gardens where its graceful simplicity contrasts beautifully with the detailed architecture. If you are a Chinese herbalist, you will look beyond the elegant, white butterfly flowers on this mid-sized tree, to see the living treatment of x¯inyíh¯a, where these flower buds are harvested, dried and prepared by extraction or powdered, and then used to treat nasal problems like rhinitis, sinusitis and the colds.

Most Chinese street markets include vendors with tables heaped high with dried roots, seeds and flowers. Some of these are intended for use as food or flavoring, but plants also are the direct source of medicine for the majority of Chinese people. Most of them are still collected from the wild. I have seen the rarest of Tibetan plants uprooted and displayed for sale on the roadside pull-offs of high mountain passes. Over-collecting of plants for medicinal reasons is one of the principal causes of species endangerment in Asia. Learning how to successfully cultivate valued medicinal plants is critical for the survival of many of these species.

Before we go any further, we must include a disclaimer that this information is for general reading only and is not intended as a guide to the actual medical efficacy of these plants. There is much scientific evidence of the pharmacological activity of compounds extracted from plants; about a quarter of our current pharmaceuticals were originally derived from them! Just because something ‘herbal’ is available without a prescription, however, does not mean that it is necessarily safe or effective. After all, the herb now called ‘poison hemlock’ killed Socrates!

Many Chinese medicinal plants look wonderful in a mixed border. Adorable, little Bletillastriata, báijí, the hardy ground orchid, has been used for more than a thousand years to treat external wounds and internal bleeding. Recent studies show that components from Bletilla do have a measurable effect on the growth rates of vascular cell lines in tissue culture. I like the bright magenta spot in the garden when it blooms in the spring. Here are several plants that Julie and I like:

  • Allium tuberosum, ji˘ucàiz˘i, is used for both medicinal and culinary purposes. We call this plant garlic chives and use the leaves to flavor scrambled eggs or in dumpling fillings. It is lovely, with good drought tolerance. If you are not growing it for its seeds, use the fresh blossoms in salads or stir-fries.
  • Blackberry lily (Belamcanda chinensis), is shèg¯an in Chinese. It is a lovely, hardy perennial in the Iris family, with bright orange, speckled flowers held high on rigid stems. From a distance, it resembles a tiny-flowered daylily. The seed-pods open up to reveal blackberry- like arrays of plump, shiny black seeds.
  • Tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa), m˘ud¯anpí, is one of our most beautiful spring flowers. Long revered by artists, peony flowers may be found painted onto ancient scrolls and woven into elegant silk brocades.
  • Balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflora), jiég˘eng, may be grown from seed and will produce cool blue flowers most of the summer. Balloon flower resembles its close relatives, the bell flowers (Campanula), and is often used as a motif in Japanese art. A middle-of-the-border plant, it may need staking in windy locations.


Julie and I have previously mentioned our fondness for purple hyacinth bean, Dolichos lablab, and how quickly it grows from a small seed to a gorgeous vine racing over the arbor with a curtain of dramatic foliage. The lovely lavender flowers, good for nosegays, give rise to deep purple edible bean pods. Pick them young, before they fill out, and stir-fry as you would snow peas. The mature, dry seeds are toxic, but edible after they have been well cooked.

Here are some other woody selections suitable for your garden:

  • Japanese Carnelian cherry (Cornusofficinalis, sh¯anzh¯uyú), looks very much like the more familiar European Cornus mas, a closely related species. Both also are related to our native flowering dogwood, with its showy, white bracts.
  • Hardy rubber tree (Eucommia ulmoides, dùzhòng) is not related to the commercial rubber tree, but it does have latex in its sap. Found in fossil records throughout North America and Central Europe, it is the only species of its family and is now thought to be extinct in the wild.
  • Ginkgo biloba, báigu˘o, is an elegant, stately, slow-growing tree and an asset to any city garden. Also known as maidenhair tree, its beauty, botanical interest, high degree of resistance to pests and generally good behavior have led it to be planted in the Garden since the days of founder Henry Shaw. Gingko, perhaps the most well-known of Chinese medicinals, also is used in food preparation, mixed with stir-fried vegetables or served in soup. If you grow your own, be sure to read up on the processing methods to prevent problems with mild toxicity in the raw products.

Adopted herbs from other continents or countries also have made their way into the Chinese medicinal gallery.

  • Ginseng is one of the most highly regarded and expensive plants of the Chinese pharmacy. Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), has substantially been replaced with the American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), since the similarity of the species was first noticed by a Jesuit missionary in 1715. Shady, loamy gardens are ideal for growing your own ginseng root for tea.
  • Silver cockscomb (Celosia argentea, q¯ingxi¯angz˘i), and crested cockscomb (Celosia cristata), j¯igu¯anhu¯a, are both popular amaranths used medicinally in China and ornamentally in the U.S. These annuals are grown from seed or bought in cell-packs to set out after the soil is warm.
  • Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius), hónghu¯a, has found its way into my kitchen as an alternate to superbly expensive saffron. It lacks the fragrance nuances, but still imparts a lovely yellow color to rice, soups or curry.
  • Burdock (Arctiumlappa), niúbàngz˘i, is not a plant I would knowingly put in a garden, but I have stumbled upon it naturalized in many locations. I like the young roots, prepared as one might do carrots, stir-fried with mixed vegetables. It makes a wonderful pickle with sugared, salted vinegar. Sometimes, it is available fresh in local Asian markets, so you may enjoy the flavor without the risk of introducing a weed into your garden.
  • That nasty, mean vine we call Japanese honeysuckle, (Lonicera japonica) has some merits if you look closely enough. Once, we all enjoyed it in our gardens for the lovely, nectar-filled, honeyed and fragrant flowers, but the vine became too happy here and is now classed as a noxious weed. Please don’t plant it—just find it elsewhere to harvest. Known as j¯inyínhu¯a, or gold-silver-flower, the blossoms are used fresh or dried. Enjoy the fragrance even more when it is enhanced by boiling water to make a tea, alone or with green tea. I can’t think of a better use for a bad plant!