Growing Chinese Herbs Outside of China
Growing Chinese Herbs Outside of China
By Eric Brand
A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about the organic herb situation in China. As we’ve mentioned before on this blog, about 50% of the product on the Chinese herbal marketplace by weight is wild-crafted, and the rest is cultivated. About 150 herbs are exclusively available in their cultivated form, with an average combined production of about 300,000-350,000 metric tons per year.
In the West, many people are starting to become interested in cultivating Chinese herbs. There are a variety of reasons why locally produced Chinese herbs have appeal- many of us would like to support local organic agriculture, reduce the carbon footprint of the herbal supply chain, and generally strengthen our connection to live, growing plants. Seeing an herb growing in nature feels different than seeing the product dried on a pharmacy shelf, and America’s comparatively advanced state of organic certification has the potential to expand the range of products that are available in a certified organic form. Furthermore, in the West we also have the idea that the herbs that grow in a local ecosystem are suited to treating diseases in that ecosystem, and raising the plant oneself allows the product to be fresh as well as in tune with the qi of the local environment.
There is some inherent satisfaction in getting “back to the land,” and many hobby gardeners that use Chinese herbs try to grow some specimens to increase their connection to the live plants. Seeing the live plant can deepen our understanding of an herb, and growing the plant allows us to form an intimate connection with an organism that we love and respect. The difference in flavor between a commercial tomato and a homegrown tomato says it all.
Despite these advantages, domestic production of Chinese herbs has a number of hurdles to overcome to achieve a high degree of successful integration in the market. A key challenge will be overcoming the generally conservative, resistant-to-rapid-change culture of Chinese medicine, as the increased cost of production and the challenges of producing a product with comparable morphology under different growing conditions.
In terms of cost, Western growers are at a distinct economic disadvantage because they must compete with Chinese farmers that have far lower wages and operating costs. This problem tends to become more and more dramatic for items that involve extensive time, space, or labor. For example, Tu Si Zi is harvested like wheat and needs industrial machinery for cutting and sieving. Many root crops that take years to mature tie up a lot of land, require a lot of manual work (digging, cleaning, etc), and are not very valuable relative to the years of effort that they require. People are willing to pay more for locally-grown products that support the community around them, but keeping the prices competitive will be a constant challenge given that Chinese prices on all goods are generally among the lowest in the world. For many items, we just don’t have the economy of scale that allows the Chinese prices to stay low.
The next major issue that must be overcome is the issue of conservatism in Chinese medicine, the difficulty in getting traditional practitioners to try something new. Chinese herbal medicine usually takes centuries to build consensus on any new idea, and changing the growing region of herbs makes many traditional practitioners wonder if the geographic change will affect important herbal properties.
How can we assess these differences? Clinical testing is limited by its anecdotal nature and our community is not cohesive enough to say that mutual respect for the clinical anecdotes of other practitioners is the norm. Flavor and morphology assessment is a critical gauge of quality assessment, but often the significance of variations in morphology (size, texture, appearance) and flavor is unclear- the dried root may come out a bit different but it is hard to say whether the differences make it better or worse. Chemical testing is also useful but few herbs are comprehensively understood when it comes to the subject of “active ingredients.” For example, a colleague recently did a fantastic job studying the constituent profile of California-grown Dan Shen and found that one of its key marker chemicals was quite comparable to the Chinese-grown product; however, a few years later a new Dan Shen marker compound started to generate more interest than the original marker, necessitating further research.
Chinese medicine’s concept of “dao di yao cai” (“medicinals from authentic production regions”) is a huge factor here. The traditionalists believe that deviating from the original famous production region causes the quality of the product to become uncertain and unreliable. It is difficult to fully duplicate the soil conditions and environmental factors of some areas, and given that we don’t know why most Chinese herbs work, the most conservative way to rely on time-tested results is to use the product from the same region that the historical works were based on. However, as simple as this theory is, the reality is nearly certainly far more complex.
There are two different views in the herbal world on the fundamental issue of terrain. One school of thought suggests that plants do not discriminate on the basis of political geography, and anywhere that has the right soil conditions, weather conditions, and care can produce plants that will function as good medicines. The other school of thought suggests that duplicating Mother Nature is a nearly impossible task, and humankind’s manipulation of the environment can never match nature’s inherent perfection. Personally, I think that neither extreme is true all of the time, and there are abundant examples of both plants that adapt well to new environments as well as plants that adapt poorly.
Over the course of human history, many of the plants that have received the most attention, experimentation, and manipulation are food plants and medicine/drug plants. For example, corn is an item that originally came from the Americas but is now grown worldwide. Originally a tiny little thing, centuries of selective breeding by native tribes allowed corn to become a rich food source; its hardy nature made corn popular worldwide. However, not all corn is created equal. California corn is often superior to Chinese corn, but both are grossly inferior to the corn grown in Colorado or New Mexico. With corn, there is a difference in quality from region to region, but one could not make the case that even the corn grown in an inferior region is not “effective.” It is not as good, but it still does what corn is supposed to do.
Grapes, tea, coffee, tobacco, betel nut, and cannabis are natural drug plants that have all been extensively cultivated and exhibit regional variations. For a long time, people thought that good wine exclusively came from Europe; back in the day, selling a bottle of California wine in France would be a tough sell indeed. However, as wine-making skill advanced in places like California, it became clear that high-end wine could be produced in other regions, and nowadays few connoisseurs in France would claim that California wine has no potential merit whatsoever. My horticulture teacher in college used to say “plants don’t read books,” and indeed a grape doesn’t know whether it is in Napa or Sonoma. All the grape needs is the right type of poor soil and weather, and the successful development of premium wines from across the globe is strong evidence that giving the plant the right terrain can produce a good product regardless of historical beliefs that limited the geographic range of quality product. That said, wine shows how difficult it is to produce something truly premium in a new geographic region- for example, people grow wine in Colorado and Southern California, but the wine of these regions is rarely comparable to the wine of Napa or Bordeaux.
If we look at other natural drug plants, we find several variations on this theme. For example, all tea comes from the same botanical species, but certain varieties of tea and certain processing methods are more suited to say, Darjeeling vs. Taiwan vs. Japan vs. Anhui. Each of these places grows good tea but any given style of tea can only be grown well in a narrow range of places; nonetheless, on the whole we can say that tea has been successfully cultivated far beyond its original homeland. Coffee is quite similar- usually different varieties of the same species are used and cultivation has successfully expanded worldwide. However, coffee, like tea, varies in quality, flavor, and ideal processing methods depending on its region of origin. Tobacco has also expanded around the world, and some places (such as Yunnan province in China) produce very unique tobacco products; I’m not a smoker but I can tell from looking at a cigar shop that there are complex variations in the region and grade of different tobacco products, and we don’t find Chinese-grown tobacco successfully competing against the Cuban and Dominican products. Betel nut has an incredible number of regional variations in terms of different admixture preparations as well as completely different sizes and styles of both the fresh and dried nut itself (with major variations in potency). Finally, in the case of cannabis we find that artificial cultivation outside of its native ecosystem has actually increased its potency (assuming that the newspapers are correct about today’s cannabis being X times stronger than in the days of old).
Clearly the issue of terrain is not cut and dry, and there is no single answer that can be universally applied to all herbs. For example, I’ve seen Jing Jie that was grown in the USA that was much more fragrant and inspiring than any batch that I’ve seen that came on a slow boat from China. However, we only need to look at Chinese-grown American ginseng to see that some items are harder to perfect than others.
When grown in the forest, American ginseng seems to achieve equal quality regardless of whether it is grown in NY, Kentucky, or Wisconsin. However, the Wisconsin product is preferred for field-grown roots. The Wisconsin roots often come out denser, shorter, rounder, and tighter than American ginseng grown in British Columbia. When American ginseng is grown in China, it is usually inferior to Canadian ginseng and it is significantly inferior compared to Wisconsin ginseng. Despite having expertise in ginseng cultivation, Chinese-grown American ginseng is yet to rival American ginseng grown in North America. The example of American ginseng suggests that Panax quinquefolius simply can’t adapt to a new ecosystem as effectively as an item like Jing Jie (schizonepeta) seems to. I’ve never even heard of high-quality American-grown Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), so I assume the case for Ren Shen is similar.
Finally, one of the other remaining hurdles for successful herbal cultivation outside of China depends on expertise. Many Chinese growers have family farms that have grown a particular plant for generations, and in some production regions we can see entire villages or counties dedicated to the cultivation of a single herb (much like Hatch County in New Mexico is devoted to growing chilies in their distinctive soil). The knowledge of these farmers and their connection to their land and crops is hard to equal, so it may take time for Western growers to master some of these trade secrets.
Yet despite these substantial hurdles, many Western growers are rising to meet the challenge. Organized by visionaries and plant experts such as Peggy Schafer and Jean Giblette, a consortium of domestic Chinese herb growers has emerged. I’ve seen some very distinctive specimens that their growers have produced, and they are pioneering some important projects in terms of educating growers on traditional aspects of harvesting and processing (pao zhi). The highly complex world of Chinese pao zhi presents a steep learning curve, but these growers are really spearheading the effort in a commendable way, with courses, books, and a stunning degree of expert advice. Their group of growers is right at the forefront of a brave new world, and the practitioner community has embraced their grassroots effort and the potential of a local, organic, homegrown Chinese herbal movement. There is real passion and expertise going into this.
In addition to the cultivation of Chinese herbs in different ecosystems, another key topic in this vein relates to the wild-crafting of herbs outside of China. Of course, many Chinese herbs didn’t traditionally come from China- several key products have been traditionally imported from the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, and beyond. Some herbs only exist in the wild and have not been successfully cultivated, while others exist in both wild and cultivated forms. However, as global demand for Chinese herbs has increased, significant attention is being placed on the sustainability of wild-harvesting and the question of whether China’s wild populations can continue to meet the expanding market demand.
As with cultivated herbs, easy answers are elusive on the question of whether wild plants from different ecosystems can be used as reliable substitutes. My teacher in Hong Kong, Prof. Zhao Zhongzhen, travels regularly to places like Africa and South America to collect wild specimens of plants that are used in Chinese medicine, as well as herbs that are new to Chinese medicine. Finding new, untapped and abundant wild resources of herbs that are scarce in China could greatly enhance the sourcing scenario for many products, but first we must have people like Prof. Zhao with a lab and expert knowledge to analyze the constituents, flavor, and other characteristics of these wild populations.
There are many success stories in the global village of herbal medicine. For example, China now grows most of the echinacea and stevia that is consumed on the U.S. market, even though echinacea and stevia are traditionally New World herbs. Nonetheless, items like echinacea have their own challenges; only one species has been successfully cultivated on a commercial scale, and the cultivated product is completely different from its wild counterpart in terms of its macroscopic characteristics.
As a whole, we can predict that some plants grown in America may ultimately surpass some of the products in China, simply because of boutique farming practices, rich soil, and TLC. However, plants that do well in harsh environments such as astragalus are hard to perfect when a farmer tries to grow them in rich soil, and each item has its own learning curve. Over time, it is likely that we’ll be able to grow some stuff that comes out better in America while other items from China can never be surpassed.
Throughout the discussion of organic agriculture, environmental preservation, and supporting ethical, low carbon footprint products, I’ve seen a lot of talk about plants but very little talk about animals. This is natural given that the green movement tends to be influenced by vegetarian values (meat in general is not very green), and most people involved would rather nurture plants than raise livestock. However, I believe that we need to put much more attention on improving our sourcing of animal products, and I think this is an area that Western producers could make an incredibly meaningful contribution to Chinese medicine and the planet’s ecology.
Chinese medical practitioners are generally a caring, compassionate bunch with high ethical standards. To me, having verifiably ethical, humane sources of animal products is actually a more critical concern than having new plant products. People that don’t understand China well tend to imagine that it is a terrible place where everything is soaked in DDT, but in actual reality there are few problems with Chinese herbs from the perspective of ecology and health concerns. Chemical testing very rarely shows contamination problems in the Chinese herbal supply chain; with a few notable exceptions, most Chinese herbal products are not commonly subject to problems such as high pesticide residues. Furthermore, the GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) movement in China is already taking care of most of the critical issues.
All in all, if there is an area with an acute problem to correct, it is in the sourcing of animal products, not plant products. We can buy good Huang Qin from China, but ethical and ecologically-responsible farmed sources of animal products such as She Xiang and Chuan Shan Jia remain elusive. While there are certainly going to be exceptions, I suspect that many animals can adapt well to different environments, perhaps with even more flexibility than plants. However, animals represent a much more volatile discussion topic in our community than plants because not all Westerners place equal emphasis on the importance of animal products in Chinese medicine.
I originally intended to write this blog about a month ago, but there is simply a lot to say about this topic. I have a great deal of respect for the people that are pioneering new growing regions for Chinese herbs, and I think in the future we will have progressively more choices on the market. Perhaps some day we will differentiate NY Bai Zhi just as we now differentiate “Chuan” and “Hang” Bai Zhi. Maybe California-grown Ju Hua will become known for its distinctive character and effects just as we currently separate the same species of chrysanthemum into Chu Ju Hua, Hang Ju Hua, Gong Ju Hua, and Bo Ju Hua (this distinctions represent differences in its flower color and growing region). I look forward to all the tasting and herbal connoisseurship that is yet to come!
For some more resources on Chinese herbs outside of China and organic Chinese herbs in general, check out these links: