Dendrobium is a genus in the orchid family, which is exclusively found in Asia. Many of the species are used in Chinese medicine, but sadly they have become either endangered or nearly so. The primary Chinese name is shi hu (石湖) but that only refers to the genus. There are many species used more or less interchangeably as shi hu. Recently I traveled to Yunnan to see some of the farms there that are producing this product for the Chinese medicine industry.

D. officinalis

One species, D. officinalis or D. candidum, with the latter  being the more recognized correct species name, is known as tie pi shi hu (铁皮石湖) and is now the most commonly cultivated species because it is considered by most Chinese to be a very important herb to generally benefit health and increase longevity is quite expensive, in fact the most expensive of all the species. The stem of this herb is rolled into balls and sold in these little (hard) balls that about the size of a cherry pit. The best quality should essentially dissolve in your mouth after sucking on it for a few minutes.
The most regularly used of the “true” shi hu species is D. nobile, known as jin chai shi hu (金钗石湖) is far cheaper, but not cultivated as much, mainly due to the lower price. This species is surprisingly bitter and helps me to understand how is works to clear heat, while also nourishing yin.
Other species are quite different. There are over 20 species listed as the “main” herb shi hu and after visiting the farms and talking to experts over the last several months, they each have their special action. They all must be cultivated for legal sale, both within China and for exporting. However, it is a sad fact that wild plants are still taken out of their native habitat for both sale and to use to help cultivation efforts. Many of the species used in medicine are not particularly easy to cultivate and require a symbiotic relationship with a fungus. Most of the species grow quite slowly and by nature they are mostly water weight, which means that even large areas of cultivation produce relatively small weight volume compared to many other herbs.
I am learning so much about this genus and will be posting more in the future about it. It is a very important herb in the Chinese materia medica and I realize now that it is not really well understood in the West.

Up-Date: Dendrobium, like most plant species on the planet, have a symbiotic relationship with a fungi. These fungi are often not seen, living either exclusively under the surface, or having such small fruiting bodies that we would never seen them. However, their relationship with plants such as Dendrobium is incredibly important. These fungi facilitate almost every part of the plant’s life from sprouting of seeds to mature growth. One interesting thing about this is that, at least in the case of Dendrobium, it is not one single species of fungi that work together with the plant throughout its life. In fact, there may be anywhere from 3 to 10 or more. Little is known in this area and the research is time consuming, which also equates to it being relatively expensive.

And, an update on 金钗石湖 (D. nobile). I reported its bitterness above, and when chewed on, either fresh or dried, it is quite bitter. However, interestingly enough, when brewed as a tea it is not nearly as bitter. Since I wrote this blog I have made another exploratory trip to the South of China, this time to Hang Zhou, to investigate this plant. This was an interesting trip because I visited several markets to get a better idea about what is happening in the Chinese market for different species of Dendrobium. There are many species available, but they are often not well marked, though clearly of different species. On this trip I was able to get a cutting of D. nobile, which is now growing quite hardily here in my home in Beijing.

I look forward to further up-dating you on this fascinating plant as time goes on. If anyone has any specific questions, please let me know.

In Good Health,

9 Responses to “Dendrobium”

  1. Cathy Margolin July 30, 2010 3:20 pm
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