Chinese Herbs At Your NYC Doorstep (Part 2)

Chinese Herbs At Your NYC Doorstep (Part 2)

What’s “Blooming” Now:

Late Spring / Early Summer- May & June

Consider this your prescription to get out and visit one of the many wonderful gardens in or around NYC if you haven’t already this month. Take your pick from the Conservatory Garden or Shakespeare Garden in Central Park, the New York, Brooklyn or Queens Botanic Gardens, Wave Hill, Snug Harbor Cultural Center, or the Cloisters (which has its own medicinal herb garden!).

Submerging yourself in the sensory experience of a flower garden can be incredible medicine. While you’re there, see if you spot any of the following Chinese medicinal herbs that are in bloom this May and June. And then, if you still find yourself troubled by any illness or pain, come in for an appointment and see if these, or other plants might be more effective as internal medicine.

The following information is not intended as a guide for foraging or self-treatment, purely for appreciating the power of every-day plants, and a glimpse at the theory behind our practice. Please see the first post in this series for an explanation of why you should leave Chinese herbal medicine production and treatment to the professionals.

Peony root / Paeonia lactiflora radix / Bai Shao

There is something special about peony buds appearing to burst with vitality just before they blossom, the nectar oozing from the round ball of petals, even before it opens. But it is the root that is prized in Chinese medicine. It nourishes the blood and “softens the Liver”. To understand what that means, keep in mind that organ names in Chinese medicine generally refer to an organ and channel system that encompasses functions which fall outside the biomedical understanding of a discrete organ (hence the capitalization to distinguish the terms).

Pathologies of the Liver system, that can be soothed by peony root, include abdominal or intestinal spasm, cramping of muscles, headache and dizziness, as well as certain menstrual dysfunctions. The English name peony actually derives from Paeon, a Greek mythological physician of the gods. Many of the ornamental peonies that can be found around NYC parks are cultivars or hybrids of the medicinal paeonia lactiflora.

Violets / Violae Herba/ Zi Hua Di Ding &

Dandelion / Taraxaci Herba/ Pu Gong Ying

Violet flowers with the stems peaking out

Compared to the peony, the humble violet and dandelion may not grab your attention. Both plants are often considered “weeds,” interrupting shady lawns and unkempt park borders. I dislike the categorization, however, and rejoice in their purple and yellow petals dotting fields and flower beds, since they provide essential nectar to pollinators, from early spring, through to the fall. Dandelion could perhaps go into any segment of “what’s blooming now”, but I like to highlight this pair of simple blossoms when the showier peonies and roses are getting most of the attention.

They are a powerful pair of little plants, in the same category of the Materia Medica; both are heat clearing herbs that reduce toxic swellings, and are often combined to treat certain types of sores and abscesses of the skin, intestines, or breast, or to treat painful urinary tract conditions. They can be used in formulas topically and internally. And in smaller quantities, parts of both plants are edible and can be used in the kitchen.

Eaten raw, you will appreciate the bitter flavor that makes it a powerful herb for draining and detoxifying. However, just a reminder to any would-be-urban-foragers, since they’re often considered weeds, I don’t recommend gathering these from anywhere that may be treated with herbicides or pesticides.

Rose Bud/ Flos Rosae Rugosae and Chinensis/

Mei Gua Hua and Yue Ji Hua

Taking a deep breath and inhaling the fragrance of a rose can certainly be a soothing experience. It so happens that the bud of rosae rugosa (Mei Gua Hua) is used in Chinese herbal formulas to soothe constraint in the treatment of Liver Qi Stagnation, relieving oppression in the chest, digestive discomfort or pain associated with menstruation.

And it does so gently, as one might presume from the delicacy of the flower. Many other Qi-regulating herbs use warm acridity to create movement, which carries the risk of dispersing qi and being overly drying. Rosae rugosae (Mei Gua Hua), however, can be enjoyed by almost everyone, in an herbal formula, in a tea, or on a walk in a park.

This is not the case for all rose species, which have different growing habits, and different medicinal properties. Rosae rugosae is classified as an invasive species in this region, so will more likely be found in forested parkland around the city. Rosae chinensis (Yue Ji Hua) is an ornamental rose, cultivars of which are more likely to be found in a garden, and it is specifically used to invigorate blood, not just qi. Yue Ji Hua is better for treating menstrual disorders and is not recommended in pregnancy.

Red Sage or Salvia root / Salvia miltiorrhizae radix/ Dan Shen


This is not your Thanksgiving turkey sage (Salvia officinalis). Common sage and red sage are both in the Salvia genus, along with nearly 1,000 species. The name Salvia comes from the Latin root “to save” in honor of the medicinal properties boasted by many of its species. Red sage may be hard to distinguish from other ornamental sage flowers above ground. While its flowers are actually purplish-blue, the root is a vibrant red, and it is this part that is used to invigorate the blood and dispel stasis.

It has broad application but is especially used in formulas to address the chest, hypochondria, lower abdomen and gynecological problems. It is known to treat conditions of the Heart, which, in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory, includes the heart organ, the circulatory system and certain aspects of the “Spirit”.

Thus, it can benefit symptoms such as chest pain, palpitations, insomnia and irritability, and more. As this journal article reports, scientific studies into the cardiovascular benefits of Dan Shen have found it contains over 200 compounds, many of which exhibit pharmacological activity, and that “S. miltiorrhiza and its ingredients could lower hypertension, improve atherosclerosis and myocardial ischemia reperfusion.”

Pinks or Sweet William

/ Dianthus superbus or chinensis herba / Qu Mai -Drain Dampness


Pinks are compact, bushy, mounding plants, with many little delicate flowers, with fringed pink to lilac petals and a purple eye. You might spot them in container plantings around NYC, or along garden borders. Medicinally they are considered bitter and cold, entering the Bladder, Heart and Small Intestine channels. Qu Mai can clear damp-heat, promote urination, and break up blood stasis. The Materia Medica calls Qu Mai  “slippery” by nature, and it is often used to treat issues relating to blocked flow, such as obstructed urination or amenorrhea.

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