Archive for the ‘Chinese materia medica’ Category

I am utterly smitten with baikal skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis)  for so many reasons, but the most significant is its unbelievable, otherworldly shade of indigo blue. When it first appears in the garden in late July, I jump about excitedly and preen over it with adoring eyes, but it’s really now, in late August, that the true heart-throbbing begins as the plants at Patera are covered in blooms that simply glow. The sky literally pales in comparison.

Perhaps you can see in the photos above the small maroonish “caps” on the calyxes which then swell in size once the flower is dropped, as in the bottom right photo. These caps appear on both our American skullcap and this Chinese skullcap, or huang qin as its also called, though the whole presentation of baikal skute is so much showier. I’ve read various accounts of the inspiration for skullcap’s name–the cap-like shape of the upper lip of the flower or this little cappish protuberance on the calyx. Honestly, the flower of the local skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) doesn’t have such a fancy hat shape, so I always wondered about the veracity of this. The rakish green calyx beret you see here seems a much better bet for inspiring namers!

the less showy caps and color of American skullcap

This little cap is very important to the signature of these plants, which I experience as powerfully calming the racing and anxious mind by “putting a lid on it”. Sometimes when we seem to be spinning out into the ethers with thoughts and emotions, skullcap gives us a little containment, cools us off, soothes the edges. American skullcap serves as an important foundation for clients with anxiety, panic attacks, mania, irritability, and bipolar disorder, not to mention Tourette syndrome and even seizures. It can’t be beat for relaxing folks into sleep, especially when tension is held in the body, as in restless leg syndrome, or simply for people who tend to be fidgety and tight. By promoting GABAnergic activity (GABA is our primary inhibitory neurotransmitter), it reduces tension in body and mind.

Coming from the mint family, it’s no surprise that these scutellarias would be cooling and relaxing nervines, but what’s interesting to me is that they are used in some unique ways in their respective traditions. The yellow root of baikal skute is used, where we use the aerial parts of American skullcap. They both have a curious greenish flavor, slightly bitter, but American skullcap leaf tastes more characteristic of plants with iridoids in them (in this case catalpol), so it’s reminiscent of plantain or vervain. If you eat a baikal skullcap leaf (not the medicinally used part), it tastes incredibly sweet. I’ve asked Sarah if there is use of aerial parts in TCM, but it seems not. This is most curious, as it’s downright delicious (but obviously some important, and less tasty, chemistry is missing from the leaves).

As I mentioned, the primary use of American skullcap is as an anxiolytic, while the main uses of baikal skullcap are for inflammatory conditions, especially of the cardiovascular system, liver, and lungs. It’s also used for cancer, especially of the lungs. During the H1N1 scare, I recommended it to folks concerned about an excessive immune response damaging their lung tissue in the later phase of the flu, and it’s similarly useful in the hyperactivity seen in autoimmunity. I also often offer it in combination with reishi for asthma, especially related to allergies. In TCM, the heart and lungs inhabit the upper burning space (aka jiao), along with the mind (which includes the brain, but also our spirit and emotional selves). So, as a plant with affinity for the upper jiao, it follows that baikal skullcap is also used by Chinese herbalists to cool and calm the mind and spirit, echoing the common application of its North American cousin. However, this use of baikal skullcap is less common in Western herbal practice and receives far less attention from the research community.

bouquet of beauty medicine starring baikal skute, belamcanda, bee balm & blue vervain

In terms of chemistry, these plants share not only the iridoid catalpol, but also flavonoids, notably baicalin, scutellarin and wogonin. While present in differing concentrations in each plant, together these molecules give both plants their anxiolytic activities, and both should also possess anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-cancer activities. What I find curious is that we Western herbalists don’t tend to use our skullcap as an anti-inflammatory in the way that Chinese herbalists employ theirs. Similarly, we don’t tend to use baikal skullcap as an anxiolytic. It seems we could be using both plants in broader applications. I’ve had good success with both inflammation and anxiety with baikal, so now I’m looking for opportunities to test out broader uses of American skullcap, too. (Since there’s not really a tradition of using it as an anti-inflammatory, this is definitely extrapolation, but I’m excited to see what might emerge.)

Baikal skute is a prolific perennial, blooming in its first year and ready to harvest as early as the fall of its second.  It’s incredibly easy to start from seed each year to ensure a continual presence and has no pest problems, like the evil beetle of skullcap death that ravages our local species. All it asks is full sun and good drainage, which it gets plenty of in its respiratory-oriented bed, tucked in with the blackberry lily, sage and lobelia volunteers. Even though our local skullcap is an absolute staple of my practice that I will never abandon, I admit to being wooed by the magical, brightly-hued stranger. Like a sighting of the elusive indigo bunting, its arrival in my garden has almost ruined me for less showy companions.

“The purple flowers are like schools of dolphin breaking through green waves in a summer sea.”

~ Richo Cech of Horizon Herb seed company, obviously feeling similarly enchanted

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Headline: Blogger smothered by garden, revived by leopard lily and danshen

As bloggers go, it seems to me that gardeners make bad ones. I say this because I am an obsessive gardener with never enough time or sunny days on my hands–which is a hallmark of gardening, yes?–and so really it seems silly to imagine that in the height of summer one (meaning me) would have time to sit at a computer and chronicle the planty exploits. Add to that the fact that I’m teaching daily, seeing clients, tending a home garden, and one (meaning me) might begin to think they’re crazy to try. This would be true if I didn’t also love to write and to share the giddiness I feel when in the garden. The plants do interesting and surprising things all the time (albeit slowly) and if I don’t tell someone, my head might pop off.

cloudy August day in the garden after rain--see, look how lovely they all are!

So…this has lead me back to the keyboard for the express purpose of sharing some delightful new bits, even though there’s guilt about the extra-long hiatus between last year and this. Nothing to be done about it, however and the plants, as always, urge me to share their loveliness and magic with as many folks as possible–not to mention their great usefulness and willingness as allies in so many ways. And so, on this rainy day in August, deep into year 2 of the medicine garden, I begin again.

wonderful garden apprentice meticulously harvesting arnica (A. chamissonis) earlier this summer

This year’s crop of apprentii and I have been out of the garden for almost 2 weeks, which is entirely the wrong time to be away from it. First, it’s peaking in terms of gorgeousness and second, we need to be harvesting everything almost all of the time. (Calendula and chamomile would be so much more productive if only we were in there every 3 days or so.) But, the teaching schedule and other bits have kept us all away and when I returned there was a most incredible surprise: the belamcanda (aka Leopard lily, Belamcanda chinensis, really an iris) was in full bloom! This beauty lives in the lung-ish and mostly stimulating area of the garden and the Chinese use its rhizome to move phlegm stuck in the respiratory tract. This excites me because its cousin, Iris versicolor (a personal heart friend) is used by Western herbalists to move boggy lymph accumulations and to get bile flowing to improve fat digestion. Once we snoop in the pharmacological research we find they share some chemistry and so it makes sense that they both give the stagnant states of various tissues some encouragement to move along. Even though research into iris is far less progressed, we can understand it a little better through what we know about belamcanda. Love it when reductionist science gives us a peek into nature’s patterns.

leopardy foreground; horns in the background

This plant is extra special to me because I saved the fat beady black seeds 2 falls ago, cold stratified them in a little soil in a baggie in the freezer last spring, stuck them in the ground last May and they 1) came up; 2) overwintered despite doubt of hardiness in Z4; 3) multiplied this year and now 4) are in stunning orangey-red leopard spot bloom!

horn, up close and personal

Of course, this is all how it is supposed to work, but most gardeners know that supposed-to doesn’t always fly in the garden, so it’s a special treat when all goes according to plan. Look at these twisty unicorn horns that the flowers turn into when they go by–almost better than when they’re open. Almost.

danshen's fat flowers and purple-streaked calyxes

Staying on the theme of plants from the Chinese materia medica that we’re getting to know in person, the red root sage, aka danshen (Salvia miltiorrhiza), came intobloom this year, too! I could barely stand the suspense, as the plants were in bud for what seemed like an eternity, but finally the flowers emerged 2 weeks ago and they were worth the wait. First, the buds and calyxes are incredibly sticky, not unlike cousin clary sage, and are also very aromatic, which we’d expect, too. However, this is the only part of the plant with major aroma or the stickiness, a unique trait for sages that I’ve met so far. Next, the buds are quite purple and as the flowers nosed their way out, they were not just a classic garden sagey purple, but actually an indigo purple–quite a bit of pink to them. The flowers are typical mint family characters with bilabiate irregularity, but these are exceptionally large at over an inch long in some cases. A big bumble bee fits easily inside.

the pink tint and a good view of purple streaking

Next we get to see how well it illustrates the doctrine of signatures, which tells us of its use through visual and other sensorial cues. Not only is the flower stalk tinged with purple but the calyx is also streaked like engorged veins–it’s a downright perfect suggestion of congealed blood! Couple this appearance with its scent and slightly spicy, slightly bitter leaf flavor and you can make a pretty good guess about its actions without ever opening a book: both stimulating and relaxing, cooling and something to do with blood moving slowly. The body-lab is an amazing tool. Meanwhile, it also has a beautiful red root, which classically indicates strong heat-clearing action (via like-cures-like thinking, suggesting a red root will cool red, hot inflamed tissue).

Taken together, along with traditional use and clinical research, we know this  root as an important ally for the cardiovascular and cerebrovascular systems, especially for folks with a lot of heat/inflammation overall. It’s used extensively in China for angina, coronary heart disease, and to prevent strokes. There, they call it a blood mover–Western practitioners might think about its antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-platelet aggregating activities, but we’re saying the same things, essentially. It’s also a great one for menstrual cramps in folks with dark, clotted menses, especially when used for a few days leading up to bleeding. I’ve been having great results with it in clinic for this purpose recently.

this beauty, baikal skullcap, has also been making me swoon; more on this one in a coming post

I can barely wait to harvest the red roots for tincturing! This plant is only supposed to be hardy to -10 degrees, so I’m nervous to let it go another winter, just in case this year is less snowy and the plant dies before we get to harvest (-30 isn’t uncommon here). I’d love feedback from any US growers or practitioners about harvest of this perennial as early as its second fall in terms of medicinal maturity.

Thanks for catching up with me and stay tuned for more news of Chinese medicinals exploding all over the garden, along with local friends like lobelia and blue vervain.

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