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The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm: A Cultivator’s Guide to Small-Scale Organic Herb Production

The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm: A Cultivator’s Guide to Small-Scale Organic Herb Production by Peg Schafer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing; 2011. ISBN: 978-1-60358-330-5. $34.95.

For gardeners, winter is a time to take stock of the previous year’s successes and failures and to let the mind meander and plan for improvements and additions for the upcoming year. Peg Schafer’s The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm: A Cultivator’s Guide to Small-Scale Organic Herb Production—based on her 15 years of commercial herb-cultivation experience—keeps my gardening spirit warm, but also fills me with new ideas and inspiration for farming Chinese medicinal herbs and plants of any heritage. Whether one is a novice to gardening or a seasoned farmer, this book is rich in advice and information pertinent to the ethical growing, harvesting, marketing, and conservation of medicinal plants.

“Chinese botanical medicine and other forms of botanical medicine are used by nearly one third of the world’s population and continue to grow as a popular form of therapy,” wrote Yung-chi Cheng, the chairman of the Consortium for Globalization of Chinese Medicine, on its website. Thousands of years of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practice are bound in empirical wisdom and have withstood the test of time and pressures from newer Western medical models. With the world’s population soaring to more than 7 billion in 2011, there is a growing consumer demand for medicinal herbs. To meet expanding consumer needs, some herbs are grown in vast quantities with the use of pesticides and herbicides. Other herbs are wild-harvested, exploited, and threatened to extinction. Habitat-loss, due to development also puts pressure on sensitive plants to become at-risk or on the verge of being extirpated. Finding ecologically viable ways to cultivate herbs and retaining ancient growing traditions is the basis of Peg Schafer’s work as a farmer, as a seller, and as a spokeswoman for domestically field-grown Chinese, Ayurvedic, and other Asian herbs in North America. She draws from her passion and her work to write this book.

This book is divided into 2 sections: Part One, “Cultivating to Conserve—Connecting with Quality Asian Botanicals” and Part Two, “Medicinal Herb Profiles.” The first part of the book emphatically addresses issues of herbs grown according to Chinese tradition with a local, sustainable, and ecological mindset. When the source of herbs is far across the ocean, it is difficult to confirm the type of environment in which they were grown and harvested. Folks want healing herbs, not ones grown with herbicides, pesticides, heavy metals, and other contaminants. Concerns about the methods by which the plants are grown and harvested abound. Are harvesters robbing the environment of endangered plants for economic gain?

A cultural and ecological cross-fertilization of East-meets-West—similar to the popular slogan, “Think Globally, Act Locally”—defines the book’s farming philosophy of growing Asian plants in compatible North American ecosystems. A laudable goal of the book is to help growers across North America determine which Asian herbs grow best in their local regions. By growing the herbs in the United States—particularly for the US market—it is easier to ensure that the plants are cultivated and harvested in an organic, sustainable fashion. In addition, Schafer’s book emphasizes cultivating plants that are not only of a high quality, but also of a wild quality. The objective is to cultivate wild-simulated crops. She convincingly points out that the wild-grown herbs, rather than “pampered,” field-grown plants, have the potential to be more medicinal. She notes that “stresses from uneven water, nutrient availability, and insect and herbivore presence all elicit [mainly chemical] responses in the plants that amplify their medicinal value.” Her book gives reliable information on how to farm with the intention of mimicking wild conditions and creating or utilizing microclimates that mirror native plant communities.

The first part of the book is suffused with discussions of polyculturally diverse intercropping (as opposed to monoculture farming), organic certification, Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), genetically modified herbs (GMOs), regulations, and invasive and endangered species. With the push to bring jobs back to America, to reduce carbon consumption from excessive transport, and to better steward the land, it makes sense to educate and employ people to domestically grow their own organic medicinal herbs. 

Schafer’s years of farming experience are apparent in her beautifully written passages on planning, seeding, propagating, planting, weed management, harvesting, drying, storing, and marketing of Chinese herbs. She weaves her own tales of farming, laden with personal struggles and successes—giving the book a rich quality, as if she is speaking directly to the reader. In addition to the personal vignettes, I particularly like the easy-to-read tables that give regional adaptability, harvesting, and invasive information. There is much to glean by reading through this section. For instance, I did not know that coir, a planting medium made from coconut husks, should be “thoroughly leached, since most of it has a high salt content.” The book gives step-by-step directions on how to leach coir; a recipe to make basic bark-based media mix; how to use a fan, large tarp, and ladder to clean seed; and the processing method for wet fruits from plants such as the traditional Ayurvedic ashwagandha (Withania somnifera, Solanaceae).

Globalization and immigration have brought plants from all regions of the world to North American soils. Some of these plants have prospered by virtue of similar ecosystems and lack of predators and have the capacity to spread rapidly and take over native woodlands as an ecological threat. In the woods near my home, Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica, Caprifoliaceae) and Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus, Celastraceae) vines strangle the native tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera, Magnoliaceae) and maples (Acer spp., Sapindaceae), mile-a-minute (Persicaria perfoliata, Polygonaceae) annually smothers black walnut trees (Juglans nigra, Juglandaceae), silk trees (Albizia julibrissin, Fabaceae) readily naturalize in riparian areas, Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii, Berberidaceae) outcompetes native shrubs, and Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum, Polygonaceae) forms dense thickets in wet areas.

Schafer addresses the invasive plant problem, and like her, I am concerned that people need to be informed and extremely responsible when planting some of the Asian medicinal plants that may spread beyond the boundary of where they were originally intended. The book has a section on managing invasive plant risk and a chart of potentially invasive Chinese herbs. Eventually, evolution will decide the fate of North America’s native woods, and I suspect naturalization similar to that of the red fox, apples, horses, and dandelions (Taraxacum officinale, Asteraceae) will take place in hundreds or thousands of years. With time, it will be hard to separate native from non-native plants, but until then, growers and farmers of Asian herbs must keep an upper hand of what and where to cultivate these plants. I highly recommend reading through the book’s section on weeds and invasive plants before deciding on species to grow in your region.

The second part of the book, “Herb Profiles,” gives information on 79 “promising” medicinal herbs for domestic cultivation. The profiles include botanical nomenclature complete with synonyms, common names, Chinese Pinyin names, plant families, and the parts used. Also included are plant descriptions, cultivation and harvest techniques, companion planting ideas, field production, pest and diseases, and medicinal uses.

I am the garden director of Dr. Jim Duke’s educational Green Farmacy Garden (GFG) in Maryland, where there are approximately 300 species of medicinal plants. According to the garden plant database, the GFG has 47 of the 79 herbs that Peg Schafer profiles. How I wish this book would have been available to me when I began my position at the garden! I would have greatly benefitted from the insight as to what to do with several of the Chinese medicinal plants that I had no prior experience with or had ever laid eyes on before. I learned that the unmanageable red, white, and green cultivar ‘Chamelion’ (Houttuynia cordata, Saururaceae; Pinyin: yu xing cao) “is considered less medicinally appropriate” than the dark green variety. Jim calls this plant “Hot Tuna” due to the homonym and also since its pinyin name means “fish-smelling herb.” Houttyunia cordata sprouts prolifically from rootlets all over the garden’s virus plot with overly optimum conditions of partial moist shade and is virtually impossible to maintain. Schafer indicates that to “curb its growth,” one may want to withhold water, and I can guarantee that next summer, the irrigation will be turned off in the virus plot.

The garden also has a multitude of easy-to-germinate-and-grow Angelica dahurica (Apiaceae; Pinyin: bai zhi) to represent the difficult and “challenging to grow” A. sinensis (Apiaceae; Pinyin: dang gui). Here is an example of what Schafer emphasizes in seeking to find the appropriate ecosystem or microhabitat for a plant. Our garden has been unsuccessful in keeping dang gui alive year after year. Dang gui is indicated to reside in the hot, south-facing, Menopause plot, but it typically succumbs to the Maryland summers and is dead by August. Schafer suggests placing it in a “forested situation with deep, moist soil and duff cover” along with damp conditions from rain or irrigation. Her experience teaches me that “semiwild forest cultivation is superior to standard field production.” Next year I will attempt to grow dang gui in the yin/yang valley—the north/south facing woodland adjacent to the garden.

The GFG is a seed bed for the invasive sweet Annie (Artemisia annua, Asteraceae; Pinyin: qing hao), and Jim likes to tell stories of his forays along the Shenandoah River and in China, finding this widely studied plant for malaria and cancer research. However, plant energetics, a very important aspect of TCM, never gets mentioned at our educational garden. For instance in the A. annua plant profile, Schafer writes that the “bitter, acrid and cold, qing hao clears heat and treats malaria, clears yin deficient heat, summer heat, and liver heat and cools the blood.” This information may be irrelevant to a reductionist, Western-trained botanist like Jim Duke, but is very useful for a TCM practitioner or herbalist seeking the proper herb(s) in a holistic-energetic approach. In each herb profile there is a side note with information on the medicinal uses of the plant containing energetics, formulas, combinations of herbs, methods of administration, pharmacological implications, and modern research where applicable. Additionally, sprinkled throughout the second part of the book, one can find several tempting recipes such as licorice (Glycyrrhiza spp., Fabaceae)-flavored ginseng (Panax ginseng, Araliaceae) tea, Chinese rhubarb (Rheum palmatum, Polygonaceae) crumble, or loquat (Eriobotrya japonica, Rosaceaae) smoothie.

The book also contains several useful appendices. The first is a cross-referenced list of plant and medicinal names with 3 tables for the reader to cross-check botanical, common, and Pinyin names. The other appendices contain maps comparing the hardiness zones of China to the United States, maps and charts of climate zones and precipitation in China, useful resources of herb seeds and plants, conservation organizations, and recommended reading. Finally, there is a glossary of horticultural, medicinal, and pinyin terms. The medicinal terms are mainly related to Chinese or Ayurvedic medical systems and are not of the Western medical model.

The title of the first chapter, “Farming to Be Part of the Solution,resonates loudly with me as I suspect it will for most people who desire to grow their own high-quality Chinese herbs. The impetus to farm in the ecological fashion presented in the Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm makes me want to jump out of my comfy chair on this winter day, get my hands dirty, and start making to-do lists of seeds to buy and projects to take on. However, with the dismal weather outside, I will happily settle for Peg Schafer’s recipe for sweet vine tea from the Gynostemma pentaphyllum (Curcurbitaceae; Pinyin: jiao gu lan—the only plant containing ginsenosides outside the genus Panax) I organically grew and sustainably harvested this past summer.

–Helen Lowe Metzman  Garden Director Jim Duke’s Green Farmacy GardenFulton, MD