It is often said that Beijing has neither Spring nor Autumn, only a long cold Winter and long hot Summer. But the signs of spring springing over northeast China as mentioned in my last post are obvious. Of course last week we had temperatures close to freezing while this week day-time temperatures have been in the mid-20’s C. Quite a swing and one wonders how the plants cope with this. However, on a much needed trip to the mountains this last weekend I was greeted by a number of fantastic species that tickled my fancy for plants, in particular medicinal plants. And, even more tantalizing are species (or closely related species) that are used in different cultures. This past weekend my keen sense of sniffing out medicinal plants was up to stuff when I discovered several species in their full native glory.
Two of the most exciting were Pulsatilla chinensis (白头翁) and Rehmannia glutinosa (地黄) both in flower. Although I have seen the later many times in botanical gardens seeing it in the wild was a treat, for sure. The former is one of those plants that is has many relatives that are used medicinally in many different cultures. I have quite a lot of experience using this species as a Chinese medicine practitioner and also two related species P. patens (this species is native to North America and Eurasia, including China) and Anemone occidentalis (native to Western North America) (Note: The astute reader is saying, “But wait, the second one is from a different genus, how are they related?” For those who asked this question or care to know the answer, I will give you a brief introduction to this complicated issue at the end of this post.) And, I have never seen this species before, so this wet my whistle for a taste of native medicinal flora in China, particularly related to my research path of the same or related species used in different cultures.
The mountains to the north of Beijing are mostly dry-arid land that is somewhat reminiscent of the mountains of the Southern California and the desert mountains of other states in the Western United States, with few trees (mostly conifers) and lots of “scrub” small bushy trees and other shrubs with a rich understory of herbaceous flora (not to mention its fair share of small lizards). The area is famous for its fresh-water fish cultivation and there is a couple reservoirs in the area, including the largest one being the main source of water for Beijing, which btw was alarmingly low. There was still snow in some of the canyons and even along the river/creeks. There is not a lot of water in the area and this is near the end of the dry season here, so this is as low as this waterways get….at least that’s what we hope!
So, on to a discussion of Pulsatilla. First, a little from the a Chinese text or two. From Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing: Flavor: acrid, warm, without toxicity. Indications: warm malaria; mania with heat effusion and aversion to cold; concretions, conglomerations, accumulations and gatherings; goiter; expel blood; stop pain; and for the treatment of wounds inflicted by metal. And, from Yao Xing Lun: An envoy herb, flavor sweet, acrid, with small amounts of toxicity. Stop abdominal pain, and red-toxic dysentery. Treat toothache, and is an important medicinal for treating tumors below as well as scrofula. Anyone reading this who has access to the modern literature can see for themselves how to use this herb. As for me I have found it especially valuable in the treatment of various chronic intestinal disorders with with bleeding.
The fresh plant tincture of its counterparts (mentioned above) is a very different medicine. I will return to the area where I saw these plants in a couple weeks and gather some for medicine to see if they are the same. The fresh plant tincture of the other species has a long history of use for calming the spirit and my experience has shown this to be extraordinarily profound. And, when administered appropriately can have significant drug-like actions. I would agree that this plant has some toxicity, at least there are some folks who do not tolerate it very well. This is not a medicine for the weak, yin/blood/qi vacuous type, but more suited for those with a strong constitution or with marked repletion. Stop back in a month or so to hear about how I would compare the Chinese species made in the Western fashion to the Western species.
Now for a little botanical note. As I alluded above there is a complicated issue with the assignment of species names to this group of plants. In fact this is not terribly uncommon in the field of botany. For instance the genus Cimicifuga has, again, been put into the genus Actea. Thus, eliminated the genus Cimicifuga from use. Historically plants have been assigned to a family and genus based on macroscopically viewable traits. As if this wasn’t enough of an issue do to normal variation, botanists now have much more advanced means of assessing plants through the use of electron microscopes and sophisticated genetics. This has led to a lot of debate over placement of certain species into one genus or another (very rarely is there a family change, but this is not unheard of, take Paeoniaceae as an example. This genus was once in the Ranuculaceae family but now is in a family all its own with only one genus.) So, as to the confusion over Pulsatilla and Anemone. I consider the three plants listed above to be in the same genus. In fact, there is no Anemone genus even listed in China nor in some other areas. But in North America there is, but no Pulsatilla, and in China the plant listed as Pulsatilla patens is listed as Anemone patens in North America. Confusing huh?!? Thus, to allow those interested to find these plants I have listed the species as they can be found in their native floras. It is important to note that older floras will list the Anemone under Pulsatilla, so if you can’t find it under one name look under the other. I hope this helps you understand it a little better. For those who may be interested in a far more technical discussion on the Anemone/Pulsatilla dilemma you can take a look at this link.
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