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Endangered Herbs in Chinese Medicine

Posted By Eric Brand, Wednesday, April 10, 2013

In autumn 2012, another alarming media wave about endangered species in Chinese medicine hit the mainstream press. A series of raids in London focused on the sale of endangered species by a prominent Chinese medicine company in the UK, and the resulting international media spotlight was painful to behold in numerous ways. Most Western TCM practitioners are highly sensitive to our planet’s ecology and biodiversity, so seeing our profession painted with a broad brush as the foe of Mother Nature is hard to endure. However, far worse is the helpless feeling of watching a media blitz that is abundant in flashy headlines yet lacking in science and logic.

This latest endangered species media adventure followed a UK court decision issued on August 20, 2012, wherein the UK branch of the famous TCM company Beijing Tong Ren Tang was fined £21,000 for distributing products containing CITES-listed plants, notably gastrodia (tian ma), aucklandia (mu xiang), and dendrobium (shihu). The article was widely circulated worldwide, and it parallels similar articles from Australia and New Zealand that cite aucklandia seizures as though they were akin to an egregious seizure of tiger bone or rhino horn. Lost in the excitement, however, is the inescapable fact that the party that was punished was nearly certainly using mu xiang, tian ma, and shihu products that were ethically cultivated, with no connection to the endangered wild products whatsoever. Indeed, in a tragic and ironic way, in certain situations the laws intended to protect these plants are arguably backfiring on the true ecological goals for which they are intended.

Many medicinal plants have been cultivated for centuries, and approximately 150 of the most commonly used items in Chinese medicine predominantly come from cultivated sources. While some Chinese herbs remain abundant in the wild, other herbs have exceedingly scarce remaining wild populations that must be researched and preserved for the sake of biodiversity. For example, while all the baizhu used clinically is derived from cultivated sources, the plant that produces baizhu is extremely rare in the wild.

The situation is even more extreme for Asian ginseng, which is almost completely extinct in the wild but abundant in cultivation (much of what is sold as "wild ginseng” and "wild baizhu” on the market is actually a product that is cultivated in a wild environment to acquire the wild characteristics). The decline of wild Asian ginseng has been historically documented for centuries, and its relative san qi (notoginseng) is a major TCM medicinal that lives on without a single known wild specimen.

Preserving the genetic diversity of the scarce remaining specimens of plants like the ones above is essential, but laws broadly prohibiting the trade in items such as baizhu, renshen, and san qi are unnecessary and impractical, as their wild products are never encountered in trade. No one would consider restricting international trade in potatoes because one ancient Incan variety of wild potato was threatened in the Andean wild. As with the Chinese herbs above, the standard potato can be clearly identified visually, and the supply chain is not in any way contaminated by the covert sales of rare Incan potatoes masquerading as the common cultivated variety.

Given the world’s desperate need for funding to protect treasured and threatened resources such as African elephants and rhinos, it is disheartening to see the wildlife protection forces of sophisticated nations wasting their precious resources on obviously cultivated plants. Use of enforcement resources should be based on a reasonable, scientifically sound assessment of priorities, not a quest for easy headlines. In the numerous media reports devoted to the aucklandia alarm, there isn’t even mention of the fact that wild Aucklandialappa does not naturally occur in China in the first place!

Admittedly, the situation surrounding these medicinals is complex, so it is worth looking at each of these three herbs in detail.

Mu Xiang (Aucklandia/Saussurea)

Mu Xiang, also known as aucklandia, saussurea, or costusroot, is derived from a plant that is botanically known as Saussurealappa [=Aucklandialappa]. In Chinese, it is often referred to simply as mu xiang, but it is also called guang mu xiangor yun mu xiang.

In ancient times, mu xiang was a foreign medicinal that was not found in China. It was called guang mu xiang because it came from India and entered China through Guangzhou. In modern times, it is referred to as yun mu xiang because it is now cultivated in Yunnan province in China. Cultivation in China proved to be very successful, and the product cultivated in Yunnan province is regarded as high-quality, daodi medicinal material.

Despite the fact that mu xiang is now an exclusively cultivated medicinal, it remains classified as a CITES Schedule I substance because it is endangered in the wild in India. While trade is permitted for cultivated specimens of mu xiang, the process is expensive and cumbersome. Its restrictive classification is credited in a TRAFFIC report as a barrier to its successful wide-scale cultivation in its native India (causing India to instead rely on imports from China). Numerous efforts have been made to re-assess its scheduling, but the process appears to be bogged down by decades of political wrangling between India, Pakistan, and China. A border war between China and India initially cut off China’s importation of mu xiang from India in 1962 (which led to the cultivation progress in China), and Pakistan and India, to which it is native, have been arguing with one another about it ever since their inclusion into the CITES discussions.

Given that mu xiang has been revered in both China and India for centuries, it is a tragedy that even its exclusively cultivated form is now increasingly unavailable to patients throughout the world. Unfortunately, beyond the human cost measured in patients that cannot access the herb, there is also an ecological cost to consider. The difficulty of international trade in mu xiang has not only discouraged Indian farmers from cultivating mu xiang, it has caused many manufacturers to depend instead on chuan mu xiang (vladimiria root), a traditional mu xiang substitute from a different genus that grows in Sichuan.

In many Western nations, chuan mu xiang is already the only form of mu xiang available. Although it is currently abundant in the wild, chuan mu xiangis generally sourced from wild-harvested plants, and over decades it may become depleted if trade in standard cultivated mu xiang continues to be discouraged. There is a certain irony that a law intended to protect wild species results in a situation in which we cannot buy the original cultivated plant and are instead forced to use a wild plant with finite resources as a substitute.

Tian Ma (Gastrodia)

Tian ma, also known as gastrodia, is another item that is extensively cultivated for use in Chinese medicine. Effective cultivation techniques for gastrodia were only developed in the modern era, so for much of history, Chinese medicine depended on the use of wild gastrodia plants. As the human population grew, the wild gastrodia population became greatly depleted by the 1970s, and now the product that is used in Chinese medicine comes from exclusively cultivated sources.

In the field of Chinese medicine, it is not uncommon to encounter the simplistic idea that wild products are superior to cultivated products. In truth, the situation is far more nuanced. For example, the di huang (rehmannia) product used in medicine has been exclusively a cultivated product for centuries, and there is no interest in wild di huang for use in medicine (despite the fact that it is abundant in the wild environment). In other instances, the wild-crafted vs. cultivated nature of the product determines its fundamental identity. For example, chi shao (red peony) and caowu (wild aconite) are exclusively wild-crafted products, while baishao (white peony) and chuanwu (Sichuan aconite) are exclusively cultivated products.

Despite the overly simplistic and sometimes erroneous assumption that wild products are inherently better than cultivated products, we find that some uninformed or unscrupulous vendors in Chinese wholesale markets still label products for sale as "wild tian ma.” In actuality, wild tian ma is exceedingly rare, and it does not exist on the commercial market in any significant quantity. The large bags of tian ma that are sold as "wild” are not genuine; rather, they are cultivated roots that have been deprived of nutrition, causing them to appear shriveled and wrinkled (to create an appearance similar to the wild product). Some experts say there is no wild tian ma left, others say there is only a trace amount left in the wild, but all agree that there is no wild tian ma that is slipping into the inexpensive commercial supply chain.

Tian ma is an unusual plant that mystified ancient people due to its difficulty in propagation. It requires the presence of a symbiotic fungus in order to grow, and its cultivation techniques did not develop until the 1970s. In the 1970s and 1980s, it became extremely scarce until cultivation advanced, and all tianma that is now sold on the market is cultivated.

Shi Hu (Dendrobium)

Shi hu is an orchid product that comes from one of several species of dendrobium. All species of orchids are controlled by CITES regulations and permits are required for trade. The shihu used in Chinese medicine is exclusively cultivated and the wild product is not found in general trade, so the use of shihu in everyday clinical Chinese medicine does not have any negative ecological impact in terms of endangered species. Damage to wild populations continues through exotic flower collectors or seekers of rare, overpriced exotic objects, but the average modern TCM practitioner will never encounter wild dendrobium products in their lifetime.

Historically, dendrobium orchids have been over-collected in the wild for both medicinal and ornamental applications, and the CITES regulations play an essential role in their continued preservation. CITES regulations permit trade in cultivated products, and the vast amount of international trade in ornamental orchids has allowed a generally effective management system to emerge over time. CITES exemptions for finished products from cultivated dendrobium are also periodically discussed, which would greatly simplify international trade in shihu.

While trade in shihu is permitted with the correct documentation, much of what is sold on the market as shihu in the West is actually a different plant, known botanically as Ephemeranthafimbriata (Bl.) P.E. Hunt et Summ. This plant, known in Chinese as you guashihu, is also an orchid that requires CITES documentation, but it is a relatively inexpensive substitute that is commonly used in place of genuine shihu. Many Western TCM practitioners have relatively little exposure to shihu, and its high price combined with its relative obscurity causes it to have an extremely small market in the West. Despite being a cultivated product subject to legal trade, genuine shihu is rarely seen in the West due to its small income potential relative to its high bureaucratic hassle. It can be differentiated readily from the substitute you guashihu by appearance, and it is distinctively sticky when chewed.

Chinese medicine is a new phenomenon in the West, and it is essential that TCM practitioners understand the complex issues surrounding endangered species. Although products from endangered wild animals and endangered wild plants are absent in the supply chain that Western practitioners rely upon, we must nonetheless stay well informed about the ecological background of the products that we use. It is unreasonable to expect a deep level of subject matter expertise from reporters and customs officials that work with a wide range of issues, so perhaps the practitioner community can help reach out to bring more facts into the discussion when similar articles surface in the future.

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