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August 4, 2009

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Home » Feature » Health and Environment

Digging it: TCM gardeners get a diagnosis then DIY diet therapy

CHEN Limei is thrilled to find tiny red berries when she waters her herb garden in the morning. It's the first time she has ever seen fresh plump gouqi or wolfberries on the plant, not dried and packaged in plastic.

Even better, she's growing her own herb (lycium barbarum) that's venerated in traditional Chinese medicine as an overall tonic.

It's loaded with anti-oxidants, strengthens eyesight and is good for just about everything.

And she grows it organically in her big clay pots, along with other prescribed herbs in other pots on her balcony in Zhangjiang Town in Pudong New Area.

Chen is part of a trial grow-your-own program started in May by the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine and its technology development company.

It provides TCM screening and prescription and provides around 50 easy-to-grow herbs as seedlings, priced from 5 yuan to 80 yuan (73 US cents to US$11.70).

There are simple instructions, though gardeners will need to buy additional organic soil. Some gardeners plant in pots and window boxes, others have small plots of ground.

Volunteers will visit and advise on growing, harvesting, storing and preparing different dishes, teas, infusions and soups in different seasons.

Experts are recruiting households - 60 Chinese families so far - to grow healthful herbs at home. Eight expat families have applied to join.

"Many people care about their health and also love potted plants, so why not combine the two by planting something healthy?" says Qian Hai, general manager of the company.

He is also a professor at the TCM university.

"It's fun to plant something that you can use," says the 52-year-old. "I used to grow green onions in pots, but there's a greater sense of satisfaction in growing a herb for good health. I can't wait to harvest and taste the berries."

Most TCM pharmacies only sell dried herbs because they can't store fresh ones, but some herbs are most effective when fresh, such as mint, reed root and ageratum (floss flower), says Qian.

Growing your own herbs for diet therapy can ensure they are fresh, clean and safe.

Adding appropriate herbs to the diet for different people in different seasons is healthier than taking a generic TCM pill.

In this grow-your-own program, a TCM doctor will diagnose a gardener's (and her or his family's) constitution and health issues and prescribe appropriate herbs.

For example, "hot" people (with excess yang energy) may need cooling, yin-energy chrysanthemum. "Cool" people may need warming jujubes, people with weak digestion may need dendrobe and women with menstrual problems or cramps may need motherwort; lingzhi (ganoderma or reishi fungus) boosts immunity.

In this warm summer, when swine flu is a concern, Qian recommends wild chrysanthemum and honeysuckle to boost immunity and dispel pathogenic heat.

According to a survey by the TCM hospital, many people are interested in the problem but fear they don't have "green thumbs" and cannot succeed as gardeners.

"Certainly some herbs require a special environment and cultivation but many can be grown successfully with very little care, like any ordinary plant," says Qian.

Many herbs have been grown by the Shanghai University of TCM in its Bai Cao Yuan (Hundred Herbs Garden) for years in domestic herb-planting trials.

Herbs like chrysanthemum, mint, fennel, honeysuckle, wolfberry, dendrobe, motherwort, perilla and many others are on the list.

Bad-smelling plants and those with intoxicating properties are not on the list. Woody plants and perennials are recommended as they grow for years and provide good value.

Information is provided but gardeners should read up on their plants. For example, wild chrysanthemums don't need much water, and pinching off extra buds will help the plant grow stronger with more flowers. Wolfberry naturally withers in summer to reduce water loss, but it doesn't die.

Don't use chemical herbicides or pesticides.

Lu Linzhu, an experienced herb gardener, just used too much herbicide - a no-no in the first place - and was afraid she had killed all her TCM herbs. Fortunately they survived.

To help residents grow and use herbs properly, volunteers from the TCM university will visit residential communities and advise on growing, harvesting, making herbal cuisine, taking herbal baths and making herbal sachets.

For more information or sign-up, e-mail to in Chinese or English. Four ingredients to maintain naturally good health

Gouqi (wolfberry)

This is a deciduous woody perennial plant, growing 1 meters to 3 meters tall.

Wolfberry leaves form on the shoots either in an alternating arrangement or in bundles of up to three, each either spear-shaped or oval. Leaf dimensions are 7 centimeters long by 3.5 centimeters wide with blunted or round tips.

One to three flowers occur on stems 1cm to 2cm in length. The calyx consists of bell-shaped or tubular sepals forming short, triangular lobes.

The corolla is lavender or light purple, 9mm to 14mm long with five or six lobes shorter than the tube. The stamens are structured with anthers that open lengthwise, shorter in length than the filaments.

Flowering usually occurs from June to the end of September and berry maturation happens from August to October, depending on latitude, altitude and climate.

These species produce a bright orange-red, ellipsoid berry 1cm to 2cm long. The number of seeds in each berry varies widely based on cultivar and fruit size, containing anywhere between 10 to 60 tiny yellow seeds that are compressed with a curved embryo. The berries ripen from July to October.

Growth characteristics

An adaptable plant, gouqi is resistant to cold, dryness and alkaline soil. Seedlings from seeds won't blossom and reproduce fruit in the first year while cuttings can bear fruit as soon as the first autumn. The peak of fruit bearing starts in the 5th to 6th years, and declines in 40 to 50 years.


A "neutral" herb that can help nourish yin, reinforce blood, benefit the liver and kidneys, improve eye-sight and nourish the lungs. It can be used for dietary treatment for deficient yin energy in the kidneys as well as dizziness, earache and sore bones due to deficient blood and energy.

It can also help anti-aging. And it is especially recommended for diabetes patients as it can help relieve related symptoms such as fatigue and urinary problems when used together with shan zhuyu (evodia) and huangqi (milk veteh).

Both the leaves and fruits can be eaten for the above functions, yet fruits usually function better than the leaves. It is suggested to cook with the leaves in the first half of the year while using the fruit in the last six months.

How to use

Chewing. Wash the berries and bake for a few seconds in a microwave oven. Chew about 15g in the morning and at night.

Congee. Add washed wolfberries while cooking congee.

Tea. Pour boiling water on the washed fruit and keep it for 2 to 5 minutes before drinking. The berries can also be eaten.

Wine. Soak the fruit in yellow wine or white spirit for about seven days before drinking.

Soup. Add the fruit in when cooking soup.

Warning: Do not eat more than 30g of wolfberries a day.

Zisu (perilla)

This is a genus of an annual herb that is a member of the mint family. In mild climates the plant reseeds itself. It is usually 0.6m to 1.8m tall, with leaves similar to that of the stinging nettle, but slightly rounder in shape.

There are both green-leafed and purple-leafed varieties which are generally recognized as separate species by botanists. Its essential oils provide for a strong taste whose intensity might be compared to that of mint or fennel.

It is considered rich in minerals and vitamins, has anti-inflammatory properties and is thought to help preserve and sterilize other foods. Its seeds are ground with chili and tomatoes to make a savory dip/side dish.

Growth characteristics

Perilla is an adaptable plant with little requirement for the soil except for good water draining. It can be planted in sandy soil, sticky soil and ordinary soil, and it can also grow well under other trees.


Perilla is a "warm" herb that can help dispel pathogenic cold, regulate energy flow and relieve the toxins of fish or crabs. It is often cooked with crabs and sea fish. It can also help relieve headache, abdominal distension, vomiting, poor appetite, coughing and cold due to pathogenic cold.

It can also help relieve reactions to pregnancy and help prevent miscarriage when using together with orange peel and sharen (Amomum villosum)

It is suggested that the herb be used together with ageratum for "cold" people or with coptis root for "hot" people.

How to use

Cold dish with dressing. Boil the leaves and mix them with seasoning such as sesame oil, soybean sauce and sault.

Congee. Cook congee with the leaves and add brown sugar to sweeten when it is done.

Drink. Pour boiling water on the leaves and add some sugar to sweeten.

Jinyin hua (honeysuckle)

Honeysuckles are arching shrubs or twining vines in the Caprifoliaceae family, native to the Northern Hemisphere. There are about 180 species of honeysuckle, with by far the greatest diversity in China - over 100 species.

The leaves are oval and 1cm to 10cm long; most are deciduous but some are evergreen. Many of the species have sweetly scented, bell-shaped flowers that produce a sweet and edible nectar.

Breaking of the honeysuckle's stem will release this powerful sweet odor. The fruit is a red, blue or black berry containing several seeds; in most species the berries are mildly poisonous, but a few (notably Lonicera caerulea) have edible berries.

Both yellow and white flowers are found in a single plant, gaining its Chinese name jinyin hua, meaning golden and silver flower. The flower buds are usually white and some turn yellow when in blossom. The buds are the best part for TCM usage. The plant usually blossoms from May to October.

Growth characteristics

Honeysuckle is an adaptable plant that can survive even in temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius. It can grow in sandy soil, sticky soil and slightly acidic soil and is resistant to both dryness and watering.


It's a "cold" herb that can help dispel pathogenic heat and toxins. It is recommended, especially in summer, to relieve ulcers, heat rash, sore throats and cold due to pathogenic heat and dampness. It can also help prevent inflammation in digestive system and sunstroke in summer.

How to use

Tea. Pour boiling water on the flower buds.

Drink. Boil water with the buds and leaves in and then heat gently for another 30 minutes. Filter and add rock sugar to sweeten.

Congee. Add the buds when cooking congee.

Cuisine. It can be added when steaming fish or making soup.

Yimu cao (Motherwort)

Motherwort is a flowering plant in the mint family. It has a square stem and opposite leaves.

The leaves have several lobes; basal leaves are wedge-shaped with three points while the upper leaves are more latticed.

Flowers appear in leaf axils on the upper part of the plant and it blooms between June to August.

The flowers are small, pink to lilac in color and often feature furry lower lips.

The plant grows to about 60cm to 1m in height. It can be found along roadsides and in vacant fields and other waste areas.

Growth characteristics

A relatively adaptable plant, it prefers a warm and moist environment but is resistant to cold and grows well in sandy soil with good drainage.


A mildly "cold" herb, it can help promote blood circulation and regulate periods and other female problems.

How to use

Soup. Boil water with the herbs and heat gently for another half hour. Filter and add brown sugar to sweeten (to regulate periods)

Cuisine. Cook eggs together with the herb for about 20 minutes. Get rid of the shell and keep the eggs in the soup for another 15 to 20 minutes (to relieve painful menstruation).


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