Notes on Chinese Materia Medica for American Gardens

These notes summarize ten years’ experience with the cultivation of Chinese medicinal herbs at Mountain Gardens, a botanical garden of useful plants, located near Mt. Mitchell in western North Carolina (USDA hardiness zone 6, elevation 3100′). Species listed are those cited in the widely available Materia Medica of Bensky & Gamble. (Spp. not mentioned in Bensky will be included in future revisions of these Notes.)

Here are enough plant species to landscape a home or office, or (if there were time and world enough) to conduct a Chinese herbal medicine practice. Two major problems inhibiting the growing of Chinese herbs in this country are lack of sources of seeds or plants and lack of information on propagation and culture. Planting material for most of the plants listed here is available from Mountain Gardens, where the plants may also be observed in a display garden. Information follows:

Warm, Acrid Herbs to Release the Exterior

  • Perilla frutescens leaf, zi su ye – “Shiso” Tender annual herb, upright, branching, 2-3′. Very easily grown and likely to reseed (harvest the seeds, zi su zi, to avoid weediness). The purple-leaf form is the one used medicinally (it’s also used as a food coloring and flavoring, e.g. umeboshi plums). Tolerant, preferring rich, moist soil, full sun.
  • Schizonepeta tenuifolia flowering herb, jing jie – Easily grown aromatic annual herb, narrowly upright to 2′, occasionally reseeds here. Prefers well-drained soil and sun.
  • Angelica dahurica root, bai zhi – Easily grown annual / biennial herb, spreading, upright, to 3′. Monocarpic: the main root dies after flowering & seeding, but plants may persist vegetatively by small offsets around the main root. The Chinese produce large roots of this and other Angelicas by preventing flowering (removing flower stalk). Angelica seeds germinate readily the spring after harvest (and will self-sow), but viability declines dramatically after that. Prefers rich moist soil, sun or part shade.
  • Zingiber officinalis root, sheng jiang – Ginger is easily grown from pieces of fresh root (now available at many grocery stores). They take several weeks to emerge but then grow rapidly in warm, moist, rich soil. Not hardy – harvest at the end of summer, or dry off and allow to become dormant.
  • Allium fistulosum herb, cong bai – These are called ” Japanese bunching onions” in American seed catalogs. Easy from seed sown in greenhouse in spring. Perennial in warm / sheltered situations, rarely survive the winter here.
  • Elsholtzia ciliata herb, xiang ru – Attractive, easily grown annual herb, slender, upright 1-2′, self-sows here and would definitely take over my garden if I let it. Tolerant of soil, sun or part shade.

Cool, Acrid Herbs to Release the Exterior

  • Mentha arvensis herb, bo he – “Field mint” Easily grown perennial herb, 2-3′, spreading by roots (invasive). Mints prefer rich moist soil, sun or part shade. Propagate by division – not true from seed.
  • Arctium lappa seed, niu bang zi -“Great burdock”- easily grown biennial herb, leaves to 18″, height 5-6′ (second year). First year roots are a Japanese / macrobiotic vegetable. Root is the medicinal part in Western herbalism (‘blood cleanser’). Grow from seed: self-sows here. Tolerant, prefers moist, well-drained soil, sun or part shade.
  • Morus alba leaf, sang ye – “Mulberry” – easily grown small (30-50′) deciduous tree, very tolerant and very useful. Sometimes produces root suckers, especially if the (rather shallow) roots are cut.
  • Chrysanthemum morifolium flower, ju hua – Ornamental hardy perennial herb, 2′, easily propagated by division. This is the white-flowered variety, better for liver / kidney deficiency.
  • Chrysanthemum indicum flower, ye ju hua – Similar to above, but more vigorous (here), to 3′; yellow flowered variety – better for wind-heat problems. Chrysanthemums prefer rich, well-drained soil, full sun.
  • Equisetum hyemale herb, mu zei – “Horsetail” – perennial herb with slender unbranched stalks 1-3′, spreading by roots, prefers moist soil, sun or light shade. Likely to prove invasive. A biodynamic plant.
  • Pueraria lobata root, ge gen – Kudzu is a powerful twining vine from a large root, notoriously invasive in the southeastern U.S. Tolerates most soils, sun or shade. A plant of many uses.
  • Bupleurum chinense root, chai hu – Attractive, yellow-flowered perennial herb, slender, upright 2-3′, easy from seed and may self-sow; prefers moist, well-drained soil, sun.

Clear Heat, Relieve Summer Heat

  • Phaseolus (Vigna) radiata seed, lu dou – “Mung bean” – Tender, upright, branching annual to 3′
    Citrullus vulgaris fruit, xi gua – This is watermelon, the well-known tender, annual, long-running vine.
  • Dolichos lablab seed, bian dou – “Hyacinth bean” – Tender perennial twining vine to 30′, grown as annual in temperate areas. Attractive flowers. An important legume in tropical areas.
  • Artemisia annua herb, qing hao – “Sweet Annie” – hardy annual to 6’+ with aromatic, feathery foliage; prefers full sun, any good soil. Often self-sows and is weedy in much of E. U. S.

Downward Draining Herbs, Purgatives

  • Rheum palmatum tanguticum, da huang – Hardy perennial herb to 6′, ornamental with large leaves and panicles of red flowers. Prefers rich, moist, well-drained soil and full sun, but dislikes heat – thus difficult to site in E. U.S. May be grown from seed.
  • Aloe vera (barbadensis) or ferox herb, lu hui – Tender perennial herb, a suckering rosette of fleshy, spiky leaves. Propagate by division, grow in container (well-drained soil, sun).

Downward Draining Herbs, Moist Laxatives

  • Cannabis sativa seed, huo ma ren – Hardy annual herb to 6’+; easy, but not legal, to grow.

Downward Draining Herbs, Harsh Expellants (Laxatives)

  • Euphorbia pekinensis root, jing da ji – Hardy perennial herb, 3′, for well-drained soil, sun or light shade. Propagate by seed.
  • Phytolacca acinosa root, shang lu – Attractive hardy perennial herb, 4-5′, multi-stalked; similar to American pokeweed, but not weedy here so far (perhaps only because I usually harvest the seed). Easy from seed.

Clear Heat, Drain Fire

  • Anemarrhena asphodelioides root, zhi mu – Perennial herb with grass-like foliage and slender upright stems, 2′. Sun or light shade. Easily propagated by division.
  • Lophatherum gracilis herb, dan zhu ye – Broad-leaved perennial grass, 1-3′, prefers shade. Easy from seed. Not hardy here.
  • Prunella vulgaris seedstalks, xia ku cao – “Heal-all” – Attractive perennial herb, 1-2′, a rather common weed in eastern U.S. Tolerant, prefers moist, well-drained soil, sun or part shade. Propagate by seed or division.
  • Phragmites communis rhizome, lu gen – The common reed is a grass-like plant to 10′ which grows by the acre in coastal marshes, and will flourish in any wet soil. Invasive, easily propagated by division. Has many uses.
  • Celosia argentea seed, qing xiang zi – Slender, upright annual herb to 3′, ornamental with silver-pink spikes. Easily grown from seed; a useful weed in the tropics.

Clear Heat, Cool the Blood

  • Rehmannia glutinosa root, sheng di huang – Attractive perennial herb (“Chinese Foxglove”), 12″; prefers moist, well-drained sandy soil. Easy from seed; spreads by roots and may be divided. Not reliably hardy here.
  • Scrophularia ningpoensis, xuan shen – Perennial herb 3-4′ for moist-wet soil in sun or light shade. Not difficult from seed. Has not been perennial here so far.
  • Paeonia suffruticosa root, mu dan pi – This is one of the “tree peonies”, an ornamental perennial shrub to about 4′. Easy to grow in fertile, well-drained soil, sun or light shade. Not easy to propagate.
  • Lithospermum erythrorhizon root, zi cao – Perennial herb 18-24″ for well-drained soil, sun or part shade, not too acid. Not difficult from seed; perennial here.
  • Lycium chinensis bark, di gu pi – “Matrimony vine” – Arching / spreading deciduous shrub which has been difficult to establish here. My best specimens ( now 4 years old, 4′ x 4′) are on top of walls (well-drained), sun or light shade. Prefers a dry, sandy soil and dry situation.
  • Gypsophilia oldhamiana root, yin chai hu – Perennial herb, 2′, succeeds here in average soil, sun or light shade. Not difficult from seed.

Clear Heat, Dry Dampness

  • Scutellaria baicalensis root, huang qin – Attractive perennial herb with sprawling stems, 18″, purple flowers. For well-drained soil in sun. Propagated by seed.
  • Phellodendron amurensis bark, huang bai – Ornamental small – medium (to 40′ x 40′) deciduous tree; tolerant of most soils, easily grown from seed.
  • Sophora flavescens root, ku shen – Attractive deciduous shrub, for well-drained soil and sun. Easily propagated from seed; seedlings are tender, perhaps established plants will be root hardy.
  • Fraxinus bungeana bark, qin pi – Small , hardy, deciduous tree (15′). Probably prefers moist soil and sun. May be grown from seed (stratify).

Clear Heat, Clear Poisons

  • Lonicera japonica flowers, jin yin hua – “Honeysuckle” – perennial, twining or trailing, deciduous or evergreen vine with very fragrant white, turning gold, flowers. Easily grown, to say the least. (This has become a very common invasive and roadside weed in the southeastern U. S.)
  • Forsythia suspensa fruit, lian qiao – Arching deciduous shrub to about 10′, attractive (but not as showy in bloom as the common garden Forsythia). Easily grown; propagate by seed or layering.
  • Isatis tinctoria leaf, da qing ye – “Woad” – biennial herb to 3′ (second year), attractive yellow blooms. Easy from seed and often self-sows; for most soils, sun or light shade. (I. Tinctoria is a secondary species for this herb)
  • Isatis tinctoria root, ban lan gen – as above Taraxacum mongholicum plant, pu gong yin – I keep getting this mixed up with the T. officinale Viola yedoensis herb, zi hua di ding – Hardy perennial herb, 6″, for moist, shady location. Propagate by seed or division.
  • Patrinia scabiosa or villosa herb, bai jiang cao – Attractive, easily grown perennial herbs for sun or light shade. P. scabiosa is upright, 4′, with yellow flowers. P. villosa spreading, 2′, white flowers.
  • Thlaspi arvensis herb, bai jiang cao (secondary species)- Widespread garden weed, winter annual, 1-2′, easily grown from seed and will self sow in sunny areas. The disklike seedpods are eyecatching (‘pennycress’).
  • Houttynia cordata herb, yu xing cao – Perennial herb, 12-18″, spreading by roots; somewhat invasive, especially in moist soil. Easily grown. A culinary herb in S and E Asia. A multicolored variety (red, yellow & green) is sold as a groundcover under the name “Hot Tuna.”
  • Lygodium japonicum herb, jin sha teng – Herbaceous perennial climbing fern; attractive, but apparently a noxious invasive weed in some parts of the country (not here). Moist soil, part shade. Propagate by division.
  • Portulaca oleracea herb, ma chi xian – “Purslane” – cosmopolitan garden weed, annual, sprawling and mat-forming, will self-sow in sunny garden areas. Edible and nutritious.
  • Dictamnus albus (=dasycarpus) root, bai xian pi – “Gas plant” – long-lived, ornamental, hardy herbaceous perennial, 2-3′, for well-drained, neutral soil, sun. Sow seed in autumn for spring germination.
  • Scutellaria barbata herb, ban zhi lian – Hardy perennial herb, 12″, easily grown from seed. For moist, fertile soil, sun or light shade. Belamcanda chinensis root, she gan – “Blackberry lily” – attractive hardy perennial herb with iris-like leaves and small red/yellow flowers followed by ‘blackberry’ fruits. Propagate by seed or division. For damp, rich soil, part shade.