Schisandra: A Rising Star

| April/May 2000

  • In China, dried schisandra fruits are known as wu-wei-zi, which means “five-flavor fruits,” because they are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and pungent.
  • The root of the balloon flower is used as an expectorant.
  • Rehmannia has been used to treat hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis, and dermatitis.
  • Fo-ti root is used to strengthen the blood and invigorate the liver and kidneys.
  • Baikal skullcap root is used to treat fevers, colds, and high blood pressure.
  • Noni fruits have been used historically as a treatment for diabetes, tonsillitis, and sore throats.
  • Schisandra chinensis, a climbing perennial vine with deciduous leaves, has been an official drug in the Russian Pharmacopeia since 1961 and has myriad uses in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Schisandra (pronounced shiz’-an-dra) will pucker your mouth in more ways than one: Rolling the word across your tongue and chewing on the plant’s dried fruit can both be a taste treat. In China the name is known as wu-wei-zi, which means “five-flavor fruit,” because it tantalizes the taste buds with four basic flavors—sweet, sour, salty, and bitter—plus pungency. Schisandra is also a rising star in herbal scientific literature and has been safely used for thousands of years as a tonic and an anti-aging substance. New studies show it has potent antioxidant activity, although human clinical studies are needed to catapult it into the twenty-first century.

What is schisandra?

Schisandra (the name also serves as the plant group’s genus name) is a vine in the magnolia family (Schisandraceae), the fruits of which have myriad uses in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The name is derived from the Greek schizein, meaning “to cleave,” and andros, “man,” referring to the cleft anther cells on the stamens of the American southern magnolia vine, the first species known to Western botanists.

East Asia is home to about twenty-five species of schisandra, and only one—Schisandra glabra, also known as Schisandra coccinea or, more commonly, as the southern magnolia vine, smooth magnolia vine, bay star vine, or star vine—grows in North America. Southern magnolia vine is a hard-to-find plant that grows in undisturbed stream and creek bottoms, rich woods, and ravines in North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Although it is considered threatened, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey conducted in the 1990s found it sufficiently abundant to keep it off the federal endangered species list.

The fruits of two Chinese species of schisandra—S. chinensis and S. sphenanthera (known in China as “North” and “South” wei-zi for the areas of the country in which they’re found)—are sold in the herb trade. Most schisandra that enters the U.S. market is S. chinensis, a climbing perennial vine with deciduous leaves. A rare plant in U.S. horticulture but relatively common in English and western European gardens, this woody vine was introduced to the United States via Russia in the late 1850s. The hardy vine with shiny leaves produces male and female flowers on separate plants. Its grapelike bunches of small, peppercorn-size, bright red fruits make it an attractive ornamental for autumn color.

I first saw schisandra cultivated in the Czech Republic; it is also an important medicinal herb of the former Soviet bloc and has been an official drug in the Russian pharmacopeia since 1961. A couple of years ago a friend gave me two plants. Last fall they produced fruits for the first time. What a delight to chew on flavorful, freshly dried fruits that met the Chinese standards for the best quality: bright red, large (3/8 to 1/4 inch wide), plump, oily, and shiny.

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