Mother Earth Living

Chinese Medicinal Herbs in a Down-Home Garden

Comfortable and inviting, Peg Schafer’s 10-acre plot just outside Petaluma, California, welcomes visitors who’ve made their way down the long, dusty “road” to the Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm. Her lovely, handcrafted home with its easy-going Northern California-Asian vibe was superbly and sustainably built by her husband, Andrew Jacobson. At the late-August timing of this visit, the turquoise skies are almost cloudless, the hills golden brown and an unidentifiable though undeniably pleasant scent hovers in the air.

Schafer’s greeting is as warm as the weather, but as soon as we enter the growing area, it’s obvious this is a place where business–a lot of business–gets done. Tools are everywhere, along with organized piles of herbs and the hum of a dehydrator that forms a steady accompaniment to conversation in Schafer’s office. When we head out to the trial garden and fields, it’s like visiting a friendly but somewhat alien land. There are mimosa and honeysuckle–recognizable, but who knew they were medicinal? And at last I get to see Withania somnifera, also known as ashwagandha, growing. It isn’t pretty, but it’s one of my favorite herbs, a great tonic herb that nourishes just about every system in the body. See it in the Image Gallery.

Schafer says she started her business because she saw a need for the Chinese medicinal herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to be grown and harvested safely, sustainably and with integrity–an approach that’s by no means a given in today’s market. She’s written her newly released book, The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm: A Cultivator’s Guide to Small-Scale Organic Herb Production because she is a woman on a mission: She wants to encourage more people to follow in her footsteps, for the sake of health and ecology, and also to strengthen and diversify the growing stock of these remarkable plants. The following excerpt is for any of our readers who want to expand their herbal businesses or just grow a few healing herbs in their gardens.

Formerly editor in chief of The Herb Companion, K.C. Compton is senior editor at our sister publication, Mother Earth News.

My journey from raising vegetables to becoming a Chinese medicinal herb farmer started by accident–a car accident. I was not seriously injured, but I was pretty banged up. My friend Debra encouraged me to try acupuncture. After having some positive experiences with acupuncture, I started checking out Chinese medicinal herbs to see what they had to offer.

Then I hit a conundrum. The herbs were helping me effectively deal with some long-term physical issues, but I had concerns about the quality and what, besides herbs, was in the powders I was consuming. When I shared my concerns with my wise tortoise-like practitioner, Bill Fannin, he kept inquiring why I didn’t just grow my own traditional Chinese herbs. Always low-key, and with a little “Hmmm,” Bill would hand me a plant or two, saying that they were starts from his garden–and no, he didn’t want any money for them.

At the time, I was a landless grower working on other people’s farms, but my husband and I recently had purchased a little one-acre plot. With a little gentle tortoise-nudging, I was off growing Chinese herbs on our first little farm. I even planted a Chinese medicinal herb garden in the Fannins’ backyard.

The one-acre plot didn’t become a farm overnight. It took two years of exploring the concept of growing Chinese botanical plants for me to feel confident that this kind of farming was doable and would be a viable market niche. I started by growing herb transplants for sale and soon found that there was a lot of interest. As I diversified into field cultivation, even more people became intrigued–at the same time, I was figuring out that this was a much larger project with even more potential than I initially imagined. Eventually, we moved to a larger farm (see illustration in Image Gallery) to further explore the potential of growing Asian medicinal herbs domestically.

There are plenty of compelling reasons why growing these herbs is a good idea, not least of which is that small-scale ecological farming of herbs is a critical aspect of ensuring a high-quality supply and preventing continued loss of these herbs from their wild native regions.

Evolving Herbal Traditions

Traditional Chinese Medicine, with its extensive herbal focus, is more than 3,000 years old; some traditions–like Ayurveda, the herbal tradition of India–are even older. In both of these herbal traditions, the roots, fruits, bark, leaves, flowers, seeds and stems of specific botanicals are all utilized to address wide-ranging health problems.

Drawing on the accumulated wisdom of these and other ancient, time-tested systems of medicine, Western herbal practitioners are beginning to utilize herbs from around the world. You may notice this phenomenon in your home medicine chest: commercial herbal formulas are increasingly making the most of the world’s pharmacopoeias. Some commercial Western “wellness formulas” include the Chinese herbs Isatis tinctoria (woad, b?i ba?n lán g?n), which is used for its antiviral properties, and Astragalus membranaceus (astragalus, huáng qí) and Eleutherococcus senticosus (eleuthero, cì w?u  ji?)–both of which are used for their immune-enhancing capabilities. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is one example of an herb that has crossed over from the herbal tradition of India into common usage in Western and Chinese herbalism. Ashwagandha is historically one of the most important herbs in Ayurveda, where it is considered a strengthening tonic. It has been adopted by Chinese herbal practitioners as an herb that tonifies (strengthens or supplements) without creating an undesired condition referred to as heat. Many herbalists consider the properties of ashwagandha to be ginseng-like, without the associated heating qualities. Some formulas for joint health include ashwagandha and turmeric (Curcuma longa), which is known for its anti-inflammatory action.

It makes sense that we should utilize the gathering knowledge of what nature and every cultural tradition has to offer. We can think of all of these herbs as the world’s medicine chest.

What Herb Consumers Want

Herbalists and medicine makers as well as herb end users want vibrant, effective and clean medicine. They seek fresh and freshly dried Chinese herbs grown without pesticides, herbicides and other possible contaminants. Driven by market demand and fueled by negative media reports about Chinese herbal products, progressive Chinese herbal practitioners and end users of Chinese medicinal herbs are keen to find better-quality herbs.

Domestically cultivated medicinal herbs grown with integrity in healthy ecosystems exhibit a freshness and vitality that is apparent. Organoleptic, or sensory, analysis demonstrably shows the exceptional quality of such herbs–how the herb looks, tastes and smells indicates the vital qi (chi) inherent in the herb. A simplified definition of qi is the life force or essence that permeates the whole body and indeed the entire cosmos. Biochemical analyses of domestic herbs have clearly shown that medicinal phytochemicals required in quality products are more than accounted for.

Herbs–and Herbalism–at Risk

The effectiveness of Chinese herbal medicine has led to a global explosion of interest in traditional Chinese herbs. In the United States, this is partly in response to the national health-care crisis. And throughout the developed world, many people are finding that serving as laboratory rats for the pharmaceutical industry is not in their best interest, and are returning to an enduring and more natural healing model. For people who have an intact herbal tradition such as those in China and India, the high cost of pharmaceuticals often precludes their use–and herbs are the de facto medicine of choice. This is true for many other indigenous cultures worldwide as well.

Globally speaking, if we are not careful to cultivate these herbs we are using in ever-greater quantities, there is a very strong potential that we will lose more of nature’s herbal gifts to commercial or actual extinction. Let’s look at the market and production factors that threaten medicinal herbs.

Climate change and loss of habitat are major issues threatening the availability of these valued herbs. In China, the majority of herbs are still collected from the wild; increased harvesting to meet demand is placing pressure on the natural reserves of China, and 15 to 20 percent of these herbs are now considered endangered.

Quality Concerns

As botanicals from all over the world come into U.S. markets, concerns about quality, contamination, correct identification, availability and substitutions of one herb for another continue to plague the herbal import industry. The further afield herbs originate, the longer the supply chain–and more inherent the risks due to distance and the differences in standards and practices in herb production and handling.

Contamination is another potentially serious problem; U.S. consumers are questioning the cleanliness of crops that are not grown domestically. When a wholesale herb importer approached me about growing Chinese herbs for his herb business, I asked him why he was not interested in using his usual organic Chinese sources. He answered that he was indeed receiving herbs being grown organically in China; however, during routine testing they continually showed pesticide contamination. (There are many possible sources of contamination of organically grown crops, including uncontrolled pesticide drift or contaminants in the air, water or soil.)

Rising Costs, Rising Prices of Chinese Medicinal Herbs

Worldwide, the cost of the majority of Chinese medicinal plants has increased sharply over the past few years. Over the next few years, prices are expected to continue to rise another 30 percent. Rising costs are the result of many factors. One factor is product shortages, which may result from ecological disasters, the use of herbs to treat widespread epidemics and Chinese stockpiling practices. Other factors within China that are pushing prices higher include inflation and a growing Chinese middle class that is purchasing more and more herbs. Prices also rise as Chinese medicinal herbs are brought into cultivation because herb farming is a more costly means of production than wild-harvesting. And because labor rates are also on the rise, the costs of production of cultivated herbs will likely continue to increase.

Solutions for Continued Availability

Despite the challenges we face in ensuring a viable future for Chinese medicinal herbs, I am optimistic about the outlook. There is hope for the continued availability of these valuable medicinal resources, especially if we look to sustainable wild-collection practices of Asian herbs coupled with the implementation of ecologically based agriculture. In conjunction with this, consumers worldwide will have to recognize the true cost and expense of producing these unique (and often long-term) crops–or farmers will not be able to afford to grow at least some of these herbs. We need to educate consumers to accept and support fair pricing reflecting the costs of production.

For cultivation as a whole to be successful in the United States and in China, all farmers must grow in a way that produces good-quality, medicinally efficacious herbs–and create enough supply to satisfy market demand. Quantity alone is not sufficient; a reputation of poor-quality herbs will kill any potential emerging market opportunities and create further demands for wild-collected herbs.

Accessibility concerns due to extreme weather events, ecological disasters, import or export bans, or potential tariffs make it sound reasoning to spread out the risk of herb loss and cultivate in many locations. This is good news for small farmers in North America and beyond. The more farmers who choose to grow Chinese medicinal herbs in diverse habitats, the better. Chinese medicinal herbs encompass an extremely diverse set of plants with varying environmental niches. Whether you hope to grow traditional Chinese herbs in California, Florida or New York, you’ll find plants that can thrive in your climate.

My Part of the Solution

Since 1997, my farm, the Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm, has specialized in certified organically grown Chinese, Ayurvedic and other Asian medicinal field-grown herbs and seeds. I also happily cultivate future growers through our internship and other programs. The goal is to grow the highest-quality herbs with the best medicinal value possible. Here on the farm in the coastal foothills in the northern reaches of the San Francisco Bay Area, my crew and I grow sustainably–striving to produce herbs with wild qualities and in a harmony with nature that guides us and helps us feel good about what we do and how we do it. Operating partly as an experimental farm, we have grown and harvested more than 250 Asian botanicals. These botanicals are grown and harvested according to Chinese tradition. Aromatic herbs still carry their distinct scents, leaves tend to be unbroken, colors are vibrant; integrity is present.

Of all the many jobs I’ve had, this is the only one where people often thank me for what I do. It is my living, but it is also my service–my personal way of a right livelihood, trying to be part of the solution. I am grateful that I have had the opportunity and I invite you to participate in the journey.

All About Asian Medicine

The ancient art of Asian medicine is a comprehensive health-care system integrating the wholeness of the mind, body and spirit. It encompasses herbology, acupuncture, massage and organized movement practices–as well as the incorporation of other methodologies of maintaining harmony. Historically, the utilization of foods and herbs was the primary instrument for supporting balance and health.

How to Start Your Herb Garden

For those who would like to try their hands at growing Chinese medicinal herbs, Peg Schafer offers a few tips.

First, get the book Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West by Steven Foster and Yue Chongxi (Healing Arts Press, 1992).

Then, pick an herb of personal interest and find out the requirements for growing it. “There is a Chinese herb for every location: wet, dry, high elevation and so on,” Schafer says. “There are vines, trees, succulents, garden-worthy perennials and even incredibly ugly plants to choose from.” Start small and grow from there.

Peg Schafer is a longtime herb grower and teacher in Northern California. She encourages you to try growing some Chinese herbs in your garden in order to help ensure the availability and integrity of these medicinal wonders. You can be part of the solution, just like Peg aims to be.

This article is excerpted from Schafer’s new book, The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011).

  • Published on Jan 10, 2012
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