Chinese Herbs At Your NYC Doorstep (Part 1)
What if you could stroll around New York City and pick your own Chinese medicinal herbs? When I was a student in the Masters program for acupuncture, I was still working as a horticulturist, gardening in and around NYC. And I loved learning about the medicinal magic of common garden plants. So, here is my seasonal guide to connecting with the beauty of Chinese medicine that surrounds us, even in NYC.
The posts of this series will introduce you to a few of the plants that you may find both on a walk around NYC, and in your herbal formula ingredient list, based on what’s blooming or putting on a show in each season. I don’t recommend picking or using these herbs based on the following information, however. Besides questioning what any NYC plant is exposed to on public ground, there are a few good reasons to leave Chinese herbs to the expert growers, processors, and prescribing practitioners.
The ornamental plants that you more frequently find in parks and gardens are often slightly different from the medicinal varieties, bred to have showier flowers or to be more tolerant of garden conditions. There is a science to the timing of when certain plant parts are harvested for medicinal use, as well as the processing; some medicinal plants are actually toxic unless properly processed and dosed.
The prescription of herbs is also a complex process, not based on symptoms, but rather on differential diagnosis of an individual patient’s pattern. But the following descriptions will give you a taste of the knowledge that we herbal practitioners cultivate, to help you better appreciate the power of the nature around us.
What’s “Blooming” Now:
Early to Mid-Spring (March & April)
(Common name/ Latin name/ Chinese name)
Forsythia seed pods / Forsythiae fructus/ Lian Qiao
Photo Credit: Sharon Yeung MS, LAc in New Paltz
The cheery bright yellow flowers of forsythia are often the first blooms to signal the start of spring, especially since they come out before the leaves. It’s actually the dried fruit or seed capsule, harvested in the autumn, that is used medicinally. It clears heat, especially from the upper body, so it is commonly used for illnesses that come on with fever, sore throat, headache and irritability. It also has the ability to disperse “clumps”, such as abscesses, sores (especially in the throat), or swollen lymph nodes.
Honeysuckle Flower & Stem / Lonicera Flos & Caulis / Jin Yin Hua & Ren Dong Tong
Who would think that the delicate, sweet smelling honeysuckle flower could pack such a powerful punch? But if you are a gardener, and have encountered the vigor (and sometimes invasiveness) of this plant, you will appreciate its strength. The flower bud, just before it opens, is used for similar heat clearing properties as forsythia, and they are often found together in formulas.
With antiviral, antibacterial, mild anti-inflammatory, and hepatoprotective properties, among others, they are often used in the treatment of a wide range of infectious and febrile diseases, as well as rashes and other dermatologic conditions. The vine, or stem is also used, but with more focus on treating painful conditions of the tendons, ligaments and joints.
Magnolia bud & bark / Magnoliae denudata flos & Magnoliae officinalis Cortex / Xin Yi & Hou Po
Even in early spring, the big fuzzy buds are easy to recognize, and by mid-spring, the fragrant flowers are hard to miss. I highly recommend a trip to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden if you need to get your fill of the scent. Are spring allergies making it hard to appreciate the smell? Perhaps see if magnolia buds can help open your nose.
Medicinally, it’s the bud (rather than the open flower) that is prized for its vasoconstrictive action on nasal mucosa, or rather, it’s ability to open up sinus congestion. The bark of the magnolia tree is used for a different set of properties. It regulates qi, reduces distention and fullness and dries dampness, especially for conditions relating to the chest and digestive organs. Symptoms like nausea, chest or abdominal pain, and diarrhea may benefit with the right formula.
Fritillary Bulb / Fritillariae cirrhosae & thunbergii bulbus/ Chuan Bei Mu & Zhe Bei Mu
Skunk lily is the affectionate name among gardeners for this spring flowering bulb, thanks to the malodorous and striking bell shaped flowers. The bulb is particularly foul smelling, and also, particularly powerful medicine for respiratory conditions. These two varieties are used to transform phlegm, clear heat and dissipate nodules, swellings and abscesses, especially of the lung or breast. Chuan Bei Mu is most helpful for chronic dry coughs with phlegm that is very hard to cough up.
As spring rapidly changes, stay tuned for the next in this series. Since many patients prefer to take their herbal formulas as capsules or granules, it’s easy to forget that this is truly a nature based medicine, processed perhaps, but not synthesized in a lab.
If you’re interested in feeling more connected to the plants that are healing you, consider asking for your next formula in the form of a raw herb decoction. Decocting herbs takes a bit more work, but seeing, smelling and tasting the dried roots, leaves, flowers and fruits as you cook them is a wonderful way to remember that although the medicine may feel magical at times, it’s hardly super-natural; it’s just Nature.
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