Chinese Herbs at Your NYC Doorstep (Part 3)
What’s Blooming Now:
Late Summer July & August
As we enter the hot humid days of late summer, there are still a number of Chinese medicinal plants blooming around the city. Of those medicinal herbs that are still putting on a show this time of year, several share a cooling property, which can be especially useful this time of year, when the heat might be getting to your head.
Butterfly Bush Flower / Buddlejae Flos / Mi Meng Hua
Buddleia, commonly known as butterfly bush, is a perennial shrub that grows in mountainside thickets, forest clearings and rocky stream banks in China, but also in gardens around New York City. They typically produce lilac to purple flowers throughout the summer, but cultivars now come in a range of colors including reds, pinks, yellows, and whites. The flowers are known, as the name suggests, for being a great food source for butterflies.
Less familiar is the plant’s medicinal ability to benefit the eyes by tonifying the Liver yin and cooling Liver heat. It is sweet, as you might expect from a nectar rich flower, and slightly cooling; it is also toxic, so proper dosing is critical for safe use, and should only be done by a licensed practitioner of Chinese Medicine. In formulas, it may be combined with Gou Qi Zi, or goji berry, another herb that nourishes the Liver to benefit the eyes, and one that I have seen fruiting in an odd corner of a New York City park this time of year, likely as a weed grown from someone’s discarded trail mix.
Cock’s Comb Seed/ Celosia Semen/ Qing Xiang Zi
Qing Xiang Zi or Celosia seed is another herb from the same Drain Fire and Clear Heat category as buddleia. It is a drought tolerant annual that is grown for its vibrant spikes of bright red, pink and orange flowers that can withstand brutal summer heat. Cultivars also come with crested flowers in the shapes of cock’s combs. Like buddleia, celosia is used medicinally to cool the Liver, improve vision, and reduce painful swelling of the eyes and superficial visual obstructions, including cataracts. Celosia seed has a sinking nature, and a downward directing effect on qi, so it can also be used to treat headache and high blood pressure from Liver yang rising.
Selfheal flower/ Prunella Spica/ Xia Ku Cao
This low, creeping perennial is recognized by its square stem and terminal spikes of many small purple flowers. It is often a “weed”, or helpful volunteer depending on your perspective, in lawns or moist shady gardens. It makes a great partner to Qing Xiang Zi, with a similar ability to lower blood pressure, and treat hypertension related to Liver fire or Liver yang rising. It is different in that it can also resolve hot phlegm, treating nodule-like conditions such as swollen glands, thyroid goiter, or enlarged lymph nodes.
Balloon flower root / Platycodon Radix/ Jie Geng
This perennial is easily recognized by its balloon shaped buds that open up into blue star shaped flowers. It does seem appropriate that these inflated buds would belong to a plant that is primarily used to treat conditions of the Lung. But it is actually the white, bitter and acrid root that is used medicinally. The root is considered to have a very ascending property, causing the qi or action of other herbs in a formula to rise to the upper body. It is often used to treat conditions of the throat, with its ability to transform phlegm, and of the skin, as it expels pus.
Tiger Lily Bulb/ Lillium Lancifolium Bulbus / Bai He
Bai He is the bulb of a variety of one of three lily species, cultivars of which can be spotted in city garden beds, and even along roadsides just outside the city. There are a few species used medicinally, with Tiger Lily being the easiest to recognize, with its bright orange-colored petals, with black or dark spots (though white flowered lily has been preferred traditionally as medicine).
The bulb is considered sweet and slightly bitter, and has a gentle nourishing property that makes it a popular food-as-medicine. It moistens and cools the Lung system to stop coughs, especially chronic ones. And it clears heat from the Heart and calms the spirit, especially for restlessness, insomnia and irritability that lingers after a severe illness or in other cases of weakness.
Pagoda Tree Bud / Sophorae or Styphnolobium Flos immaturus / Huai Mi
The pagoda tree, also known as a Japanese Scholar tree, is a common street tree around New York City. It is one of the few trees in the area that blooms in late summer, though you may take more notice of it in the fall when it litters the ground with its knobby, bean-like pods. Its flower buds are used medicinally to cool the blood, clear heat and stop bleeding.
It is most often used to target bleeding hemorrhoids or other conditions of bleeding from the Large Intestine, though it can be used as well for nose bleeds, uterine bleeding and coughing of blood. In some formulas it is also used to treat headache, dizziness and red eyes due to Liver heat (along with the first few herbs in this category).
See if you can spot any of these buds or flowers around NYC this week, and appreciate your good health if you don’t have a need for these particular herbs. Or, if you do, reach out to your practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine for a formula prescription. And please remember, this information is not intended as a guide to forage or self-treat! Please see the first entry of this series for the explanation of why it’s safest to leave herb production and prescribing to the experts.
If you’ve enjoyed learning about these flowers consider booking an herbal consultation to get herbs like these to improve your daily life.