Chinese Medicinal Plant Project

Final Report for FNC02-414

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2002: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


For over a decade, I have managed a Chinese medicinal plant collection under the trade name Plant It Herbs. The collection contains over 260 species of Chinese medicinal plants. Over 90% of the collection was started from seed and approximately half an acre is under cultivation. One tropical greenhouse houses the tropical and subtropical species and a larger greenhouse houses the perennials and an herb drying area. For a decade, I sold plants via the local farmers market, various conferences and workshops, mail order catalogue and the internet. For the last nine years I have taught student interns from Ohio University and Hocking College. Since 1998 students have earned academic credit through formal intern programs set up with the schools and Plant It Herbs. My work has focused on developing cultivation techniques, offering educational opportunities and workshops, and collaboration with Chinese plant experts in the United States and China.

In 2003, I visited the Institute of Medicinal Plant Development (IMPLAD), in Beijing, China. During my visit I had the opportunity to meet Chinese herb manufacturers and visit cultivated fields. I have initiated a botanical exchange with IMPLAD. Last year I gave them Hydrastis canadenis (Goldenseal) and Actaea racemosa (Black Cohosh) to study and they gave me seed from their IMPLAD gardens in exchange to study in my Athens, Ohio gardens.

Open houses and workshops have been held annually since 1997. In 2002 a fire destroyed my office, library and years or research work. The focus during our re-building effort changed from concentrating on retail sales to increasing educational opportunities and research. Funding is a constant issue although, somehow the work continues.

Peter Borchard’s property – Site #1 – has been organic but not certified (until this study), for over 30 years. Mark Cullen’s Site #2 gardens have been organic for over 25 years, but not certified. Organic and sustainable growing techniques have been practiced on Cindy Riviere’s property – Site #3 – since 1984 and the land has been certified organic for the last two years. Biodynamic preparations have been applied to the gardens since 2002. The collaborators feel that this grant has highlighted the importance of nurturing our ecosystem using these techniques in order to gain the best quality product outcome.

The goals of the study were to identify the medicinal and economic value of Chinese medicinal plants and mushrooms while providing hands on cultivation and conservation training for local growers and farmers. We developed and practice cultivation systems that have proven to be successful and we are sharing the results. We envision an approach to sustainable economic botany as a solution to many of the problems we are facing.

Three replicable research plots containing five Chinese medicinal plants and three medicinal mushrooms were evaluated for production on variable growing medium, including a fallow area. The Chinese plants studied where Gynostemma sp. (Jiao Gu Lan), Acanthopanax gracilystilus (Wu Jia Pi), Astragalus membranaceus (Huang Qi), Codonopsis pilosula (Dang Shen) and Chrysanthemum (Dendranthum) morifolium (Ju Hua). The three mushroom species studied where Oyster Pleurothus osteratus, Shiitake Lentinula edodes and Rieshi Ganoderma lucidium. The three varieties of mushroom were plugged into seven local hardwoods, White Oak, Ash, Maple, Cherry, Red Oak, Paper Birch and Sassafras.

The study worked to establish standards for the medicinal equivalency of domestically grown products to those imported from Asia. Results where based on organoleptic analysis and constituent testing. We sought to increase knowledge in cultivation, propagation and processing of Chinese medicinal plants and mushrooms. We evaluated various Chinese stocks for invasive potential under cultivated and fallow conditions and attempted to develop an assess marketability of Chinese medicinal plants and mushrooms.

Peter Borchard and Mark Cullen, DN, DC, ND are the collaborators who participated in the study. Steven Foster, Robert Newman, LAC, MSTCM, Dr. Yulin Ren and Dr. Xiao Chen are among the respected, Chinese medicinal plant experts I brought together to assist in the analysis of American grown Chinese herbs for this study.

Our local county extension agent Rory Lewandowski has been an enthusiastic supporter of this study. He writes a weekly article on agriculture issues in our local newspaper, (the Athens Messenger), and I contribute to his column. My next article will feature this study and run January 8, 2005. In April 2005, I will give a presentation to the local chapter of Master Gardeners. A private workshop will be given to the Athens Herb Guild in July 2005.

Medicinal Mushrooms grown on Local Hardwoods:
The mushroom study got off to a rough start when one of our collaborators (Rebecca Wood, Hopewood Farm) suddenly decided to withdraw from the study due to the sale of her land. The mushroom logs had been plugged and left at Hopewood Farm for the winter, 2002. The next spring in 2003, the entire grouping of plugged logs were scattered and totally unorganized. I was never able to get what we had labeled as Reishi logs to flush. I had an overabundance of Oyster Pleurotus osteratus, and Shiitake Lentinula edode mushrooms flush on various local hardwoods that fruited well the first and second year, but no Reishi Ganoderma lucidium. Perhaps, Reishi mushrooms need more than two years to fruit or the logs were mistakenly not given back to me.

Partnership and collaborations are essential, although it is difficult to know in advance which will work and which will not. As I reorganized the logs I found that we had plugged logs from seven local hardwoods instead of five. I had depended on my collaborator but it was apparent she had overextended herself. After receiving permission from Ken Schneider to select another collaborator and site when Rebecca withdrew, I completed the project without further incident.

Constituent testing was very difficult to obtain for mushrooms. I contacted several labs around the county and after talking with them, decided to abandon constituent testing and instead evaluate the mushrooms through flush frequency, log species performance, and the overall taste and texture of the mushrooms. Notable authorities such as Steven Foster and Erica Renaud from Seeds of Change, favorably evaluated several mushroom meals through the process of taste and smell evaluation. I regret not weighing the mushrooms after abundant flushes.

In 2002 during the first year of the study we were in the grips of one of the worst droughts in our history. Trees in the forest wilted from the lack of rain. Rare for southeastern Ohio, the study sites were under the cover of snow all winter. The following spring 2003 it rained much more than usual. Summer was fairly normal but fall came early and winter stayed long. Spring and summer 2004 have been wet and cool. The fall has been very mild. Winter weather has not yet arrived.

The Oyster mushrooms in this study preferred aspen, poplar and paper birch overall. It is considered one of the easiest mushrooms species to grow. Oyster mushrooms are said to be anti-viral regulates blood pressure, support cardio vascular function and reduce cholesterol. Last fall we had abundant flushes of Oyster mushroom and this fall we’ve had maybe one or two flushes. This spring 2004 started out rainy. A cool summer followed and this fall has been one very long Indian summer. The longs were watered infrequently and depended primarily on rain to trigger flushes.

The data sheet logs show that Shiitake flushed on white oak, poplar and maple most frequently although, all the logs came into come kind of flush after abundant rains and during their normal flushing times in autumn and spring.

Shiitake mushrooms have been hailed for both their culinary and medicinal benefits in Asia for hundreds of years. Shiitake mushrooms therapeutic effects include, anti-tumor, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, blood sugar moderator, immune enhancer, stress reducer, and liver tonic. Every year their popularity increases worldwide.

George Vaughan, a local gourmet mushroom growers and has been growing Shiitake, Oyster and a large variety of gourmet mushrooms. Over the years he has expanded his market and now includes other local products on his routes to bigger markets. Locally produced mushrooms both wild and propagated are frequently available at our local farmers market. Fresh mushrooms are becoming increasingly abundant in gourmet markets that cater to discerning pallets and for those looking for the health benefits mushrooms provide.

Reishi mushrooms are found on living or dead deciduous oak trees and are cultivated in China. They are not tasty like Oyster or Shiitake mushrooms. The fungi are collected when mature and sun dried for use in syrups, powders, tablets and tinctures. It is one of the most important Taoist longevity herbs, valued by early Chinese emperors. Research has shown that it contains substances for treating cancer, viral infections and allergies. I regret that I was not successful in getting the Reishi to flush for this study. I believe that it has strong potential as a value added product. Colleagues of mine in Missouri are investigating the potential to produce products made from wild collected Ganoderma lucidium, Reishi. In Vermont Nancy Scarzello is successfully selling a tincture made from Reishi, Shitake, Chaga and Turkey Tail through her business “Spirits of the Mountain.”

I am satisfied with the results of the mushroom study. We realize that given the right conditions, mushrooms are easy to grow and in addition they have excellent market potential. I hope to offer workshops on mushroom cultivation as well as tincture making in the future.

Chinese Medicinal Plants:
The Chinese medicinal plants selected for the study were chosen because; I had the seed or clones available and knew they were the correct species. Second, they were selected because they were relatively easy to grow and third, by the end of the two year grant cycle I was sure we would have enough plant material to test. Codonopsis pilosula (Dang Shen), Astragalus membranaceus (Huang Qi), Chrysanthemum (Dendranthum) morifolium (Ju Hua) and Acanthopanax gracilystilus (Wu Jia Pi) still need testing. I believe they all hold promise. The plant research was conducted to answer a question many of us exploring the cultivation of Chinese medicinal herbs have had for a long time. Can we grow quality Chinese medicinal plants in North America soils? After seeing the results of the constituent tests and the organoleptic analysis results, we are very encouraged. Challenges certainly exist but given the positive results, we can begin to achieve the credibility we need to create a value added product and create a niche market.

After the first full year of the grant in 2003, I planned to test Chrysanthemum (Dendranthum) morifolium (Ju Hua). Unfortunately, the invasive population of deer in our rural area ate all the flower buds at all three sties just before I planned to harvest. In addition to the deer problem I decided that Ju Hua needed a warmer climate to become a marketable plant. I have revised my assessment this season and now believe that it does have market potential if it is planted in an area that offers protection from the deer population.

Ju Hua is grown at IMPLAD in Beijing where it has similar growing conditions and temperatures as ours. Pollution and lack of sun have an overall effect on quality. Ju Hua is cultivated further south where the temperatures are milder and the air is cleaner.

A Chinese colleague, Dr. Yulin Ren Believes Ju Hua grown here has excellent taste although, she notes that the flavor is milder compared to the best quality Ju Hua grown in southern China. Given the freshness, she believes that Ju Hua grown in southeastern Ohio soils has excellent market potential. I have given away over two ounces of dried Ju Hua flowers this fall to my Chinese colleagues in Athens, Ohio. Ju Hua will make an excellent plant to test in the future. Its function clears the liver and brightens the eyes plus it makes a delicious, aromatic tea. Ju Hua seed is sterile; it is cultivated from cloned material.

Traditionally, quality Chinese herbs are wild collected or cultivated in certain regions or provinces in China. For example, the plant we ended up testing, Jiao Gu Lan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum), grows throughout China but the best quality is considered to come from the area of Mt. Fanjing in Guiahou Province, located in southwest China. This is why it has been so important to this study to have the Chinese experts do the constituent testing and see first had the positive results.

Gynostemma pentaphyllum (Jiao Gu Lan) grows in many Asian countries. There does not appear to be any earlier historical documentation other than in china, (Jialiu Liu, 1999, Jiaogulan, China’s Immortality Herb). Jiao Gu Lan was first mentioned during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) and was first recognized as a dietary supplement during famine rather than a medicinal herb. In modern times it has been regularly used by people in the mountainous regions of Southern China as an energizing agent. A tea is consumed before work to increase endurance and strength and after work to relieve fatigue. Local people called Jiao Gu Lan, xiancao the “Immortality Herb”and described it to be like ginseng but better. People in regions where Jiao Gu Lan was consumed regularly were living to be 100 years of age. Nearly 300 scientific papers in Jiao Gu Lan or its saponins have been published in respected journals. Information about the herb has been formally collected and published in the modern Dictionary of Chinese Materia Medica. In Steven Foster’s organoleptic findings he sites several references relating to Gynostemma pentaphyllum, Jiao fu Lan.

Therapeutic qualities of Jiao Gu Lan include, antioxidant, adaptogen, enhancing cardiovascular function, lowering high blood pressure, lowering cholesterol, preventing heart attack and stroke, strengthening resistance (enhancing white blood cell formation), strengthening immunity and cancer inhibitor. Additional uses translated from Chinese language books and interpreted by Robert Newman include:

“Gynostemma pentaphyllum—Jiao Gu Lan: traditionally, the root stem or whole plant is used and it is considered to be bitter and cold; since it is listed first; I would say that its primary function is to Clear Heat and Relieve Toxins; it also Disperses Inflammation and Clears Heat, Stops Cough and Disperses Phlegm; it treats chronic bronchitis, chronic tracheitis, infectious hepatitis, pyelonephritis, enteritis, involuntary urination and spermatorrhea.”

In China, one or more Jiao Gu Lan species can be found growing wild in provinces in Shaanxi, Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhau, Guangxi, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, and Hainan. Jiao Gu Lan grows in mountains and plains, at an elevation of between 1,000 to 10,000 feet. It grows best in Mt. Fanjing in Guizhou Province located in southwest China. One of China’s exclusive nature reserves, the Mt. Fanjing Reserve is a sub-tropic middle mountain forest ecosystem.

In southestern Ohio, Jiao Gu Lan grows easily although it is sensitive to cold temperatures. Covering it on cold nights allows it to grow and thrive through frosts. A hard freeze forces it to go dormant until spring. It grows best in warm climates although, in those climates it could become invasive. Great care was taken during this study to monitor Jiao Gu Lan and the other study plants for invasive qualities.

A fallow garden was established to monitor plant behavior as part of the study. Chrysanthemum (Dendranthum) morifolium (Ju Hua) was the only species that was able to compete with the weeds in the fallow garden and bloom.

Gynostemma pentaphyllum, Jiao Gu Lan has shown no signs of regeneration outside the plant beds at any of the test sites. I have been growing Jiao Gu Lan since 1999 and it has not regenerated outside planting areas, although I can see the invasive potential given the right environmental setting. It grows very well in zone 6/7 with some protection.

The Jiao Gu Lan grown for the study was grown in minimally amended, somewhat rich, easily drained soil in part sun. Site #1 (Peter’s) was previously cultivated ridge top land, left fallow and cultivated again for the study. Shade cloth was used to protect the Jiao Gu Lan during the summer, although as the Ju Hua and Dang Shen grew larger and provided more shade, the Jiao Gu Lan spread under their protection and grew fuller and more lush. Site #2 (Mark’s) being the lowest in elevation and with slightly cooler temperatures and less protection, produced a smaller harvest. Mark’s site also had persistent deer problems, although the deer did not touch the Jiao Gu Lan. Site #3 (Cindy’s) is ridge top land. The Jiao Gu Lan was planted in a bed along the edge of the forest and the plants seemed to thrive easier with the protection the trees provided.

Our ability to grow quality Chinese herbs in North America has not been taken seriously until now. The test results show we can grow Jiao Gu Lan comparable to Chinese quality grown material and on two sites (#3 and #1), the results can be interpreted that they have higher medicinal quality. Dr. Yulin Ren gave me her personal assessment after she conducted the constituent testing results and corroborated it with Dr. Xiao Chen who was equally impressed. Dr. Yulin Ren is very well known in China for her work as a Chinese medicinal pharmacologist trained at IMPLAD. I feel very fortunate to have been able to work with her on this important study. Dr. Chen, Dr. Ren and I plan to publish the results of this study together. Evidence based medicine resulting from constituent testing and organoleptic analysis is essential to incorporating these important plants into our pharmacopeia and thus allowing this proven medicine to become apart of our healthcare choices.

As stated previously, in China, quality Chinese herbs come from traditional areas, regions or provinces. If the same herb comes from another area it is not considered as valuable. I understand the logic and it certainly has validity, after all the Chinese have been nurturing their natural healing treasures for thousands of years. A plant needs a healthy environment and the right conditions to produce quality roots, flowers and stems. I have observed these plants growing for years. Based on my observations we have the potential to grow quality fresh product and market it directly from the farmer to the practitioner. In addition, we have the potential to tap into the Asian communities with quantified constituent and organoleptic analysis test results.

Project Impacts:
There is good reason to believe that we can create environmentally and socially responsible opportunities for growers in southeastern Ohio with proper infrastructure, interested progressive growers and supervised field trainings. We can develop economic opportunities in our area by borrowing methods from excellent working models in progressive areas where medicinal plants are cultivated. I have a close association with the president, Leslie Gardner, of the Sonoma County Herb Exchange in California who would be willing to assist us in a start up venture. Native medicinal plant diversity is abundant in southeastern Ohio. China and North America share the same general latitude and much of the climate is similar. So called green corridors are becoming more abundant and opportunities to encourage sustainable agricultural ventures have great potential.

Research and development are crucial to the advancement of herbal medicine in our culture. There is potential to create markets beyond acupuncture/herbal practitioners within the Asian communities. Small inroads have proved substantial – Chinese experts are now doing the testing and seeing firsthand the positive results. At this time it is difficult to give hard economic data because quantities of locally produced Chinese herbs are not readily available.

Peggy Schaffer a colleague of mine from Petaluma, California has been growing Chinese herbs for about eight years and is selling fresh product to tincture makers in CA. Many of her buyers are practitioners and herbalists progressively experimenting with combining formulas of western and eastern herbs. I know Chinese experts doing the same work in China. Peggy is fortunate to live in an area with a large population base – unlike our economically challenged Appalachian region. Building a reputation for growing quality medicinal herbs in our economically challenged area with achieve the desired results: to create jobs that in turn creates a sustainable economy without doing harm to the environment while preserving our natural medicinal plant resources.

We presently lack an organized group of committed growers in southeastern Ohio. A consortium of American growers is assessing the feasibility of growing Chinese medicinal plants and marketing the organic, fresh, and dried product directly to practitioners. One of my colleagues, Jean Giblette directs the five growers associations involved in the study. I have sent her samples of products grown in my gardens for practitioners to assess and given private workshops to growers association members involved in the consortium from West Virginia. The growers involved in the consortium are very encouraged with the results of this study.

- Qigong workshops
- Open houses
- News articles, new article scheduled January 8, 2005
- UpS articles, new article on Chinese herbs scheduled January 2005
- Rural Action Land Owners Conference workshop
- Master Gardeners groups
- Licking Co. Herb Association
- West Virginia Growers Association
- National Collaborators
- Institute of Medicinal Plant Development, IMPLAD, Beijing, China


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.