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September 29, 2009

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Health stems from the orchid

RARE wild orchids growing on mountain cliffs are prized in traditional medicine, but not for their flowers, for their stems. Zhang Qian explores. An inconspicuous herbal tonic in many Chinese pharmacies is a small ball of what looks like twisted and wrapped straw, but it's one of the nine top "fairy herbs" of Taoism.

This is shihu or orchid, sometimes called golden grass - rather, the stems of one kind of dendrobe (an orchid species) that are dried, baked and wrapped in little balls just a couple of centimeters in diameter.

They are commonly golden yellow or greenish yellow. The most valuable are rarer, with dark stems and are known as tiepi shihu or iron-skin orchid for the rust-colored stains on fresh stems. They are considered more potent and are more expensive.

Wild tiepi shihu, with small sprays of flowers, growing on rocks can sell for 8,000-100,000 yuan (US$1,172-14,646) per kilogram. These varieties grow on rocks and cliffs in mountain areas, such as Yunnan Province, and are difficult to find, though they are grown commercially. Chinese believe wild herbs are more potent than commercially raised varieties.

Long ago people used to shoot arrows to knock these plants off cliffs so they could collect them at the bottom or ravines.

Iron-skin orchids are facing extinction and listed as protected medicinal herb.

The cost, however, is not nearly as high as that of aweto, ganoderma, bird's nest or some ginsengs.

Common shihu is less expensive and costs only several hundred yuan.

Dendrobe is neutral in energy, but nourishes yin (cold) energy, moisturizes, and is specially good for the digestive system, known as the spleen in traditional Chinese medicine. It is commonly made into soup or tea.

It helps the digestive system absorb other tonics.

Dendrobe grows in the Himalayan region, as well as low-lying tropical forests. It was recorded as a precious tonic in the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220) in "Shennong Bencao Jing" ("Shennong's Herbal Classic").

Shihu travels through stomach and kidney meridians to promote body fluids and dispel pathogenic heat. It relieves problems caused by excessive internal heat and deficient yin energy, such as vomiting, constipation, poor appetite, frequent thirstiness and poor eye-sight.

Though shihu does not directly reinforce energy, it is a good tonic for most people since it benefits the digestive system, according to He Lina of the Leiyunshang Pharmacy on Nanjing Road W.

"Good spleen (digestive system) guarantees that we absorb what we eat. If your spleen doesn't function well, any precious tonic is wastes," says He. So eating these orchid stems is preparation for any tonic.

Though fresh orchid stems can be used, dried and processed ones are more popular since impurities can be removed and they can be preserved.

There are more than 1,000 species of dendrobe (only one of more than 20,000 orchid species worldwide) in the world, around 75 of them grow in China. About 40 are used for medicinal purposes.

Tiepi shihu is one of the Top Nine Fairy Herbs in "Dao Zang" ("Taoism Classic") of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The other eight are snow lotus from Tianshan Mountain, ginseng weighing three liang (ancient weight measure equalling to 93 grams), tuber of multi-flower knotweed over 120 years old, 60-year-oldltuckahoe, cistanche deserticola, lingzhi (ganoderma fungus) in remote mountains, deep sea pearls and dong chong xia cao (summer grass winter worm, or aweto/cordyceps).

Tiepi shihu also strengthens muscle, brain and increases longevity, according to "Bencao Gangmu" ("Compendium of Materia Medica"). It is a famous life-saving folk medicine.

Modern research shows that it can improve immunity, memory, delay signs of aging and help treat diabetes. It is given to patients receiving chemotherapy and helps in those who drink or smoke too much.

Shihu can be made into capsules or tea, but the herbal soup is most efficacious, says He.

Soak one to two dried balls in water for about 20 minutes until they soften, then simmer for 15 minutes to make soup.

Since the tiepi shihu can sell for 10 times as much as other varieties, there are many "fakes" using adequate but less efficacious shihu. The real thing -

tiepi shihu

It's yellow or brown and wrapped into an ellipsoid, two to five wraps. It tastes bland or bitter. It's sticky when chewed.

Tea - shihu and maidong (ophiopogon root/mondo grass)

Ingredients: shihu (10g), maidong (10g), rice sprouts (10g)

Add boiling water and drink often.

Benefits: Nourishes yin, dispels heat, aids digestion, promotes body fluid. Treats vomiting, poor appetite, sore throat due to deficient yin and pathogenic heat.

Juice - shihu and sugar cane

Ingredients: shihu (30g), sugar cane (500g)

Preparation: Cook soup with shihu, press cane juice. Combine.

Drink often.

Benefits: Nourishes yin, aids digestion, dispels heat and thirst.

Soup - shihu, gouqi (wolfberry) and chrysanthemum

Ingredients: shihu (15g), gouqi (15g), dried chrysanthemum (10g)

Cook soup, drink often.

Benefits: Nourishes yin, dispels heat, improves eyesight, aids digestion.


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