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Raw materials

There are roughly 13,000 medicinals used in Chinese herbal medicine and over 100,000 medicinal recipes recorded in the ancient literature. Plant elements and extracts are by far the most common elements used. In the classic Handbook of Traditional Drugs, 517 drugs were listed and 30 were minerals. For many plants used as medicinals, detailed instructions have been handed down not only regarding the locations and areas where they grow best, but also regarding the best timing of planting and harvesting them.

Below we have listed just a few many of which you will be acquainted with already – why not take a look and see how many you already know?

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Chinese red ginseng roots

The use of ginseng (人参) is well over two thousand years old in Chinese medicine. Ginseng contains ginsenosides. The amount of ginsenosides in ginseng depends on how the plant was cultivated and the age of the root. Wild ginseng is rare and commands the highest prices on the market. Red Panax ginseng is the most popular form of ginseng and it is usually packaged as a liquid or tea. Ginseng comes in two kinds, red and white. The color of the ginseng depends on how it is processed. White ginseng is unprocessed and dries naturally. Red ginseng is processed with steam and is believed to be more effective. Native Americans have used American ginseng for dry coughs, constipation, and fevers.

TCM Information: Species: Panax ginseng. Pinyin: Ren Shen. Common Name: Chinese Ginseng. Quality: Sweet, Bitter, Warm. Meridians: Lung, Spleen, Heart. Actions: Tonifies yuan qi to treat collapse of qi, tonifies spleen and lung, generates fluids, mildly tonifies heart qi.

Species: Elutherococcus senticosus. Pinyin: Ci Wu Jia. Common Name: Siberian Ginseng. Quality: Pungent (Acrid), Slightly bitter, Warm. Meridians: Spleen, Heart, Kidney. Actions: Tonifies spleen and kidney, mildly tonifies heart qi, promote blood circulation, calms shen.

Species: Panax quinquefolius. Pinyin: Xi Yang Shen. Common Name: American Ginseng. Quality: Sweet, Slightly bitter, Cold. Meridians: Heart, Kidney, Lung. Actions: Tonifies lung and spleen qi, tonifies lung yin, cools fire from lung yin deficiency, generates fluids.


Main article: Medicinal mushrooms

Mushrooms have long been used as a medicinal food and as a tea in Chinese herbology. Clinical, animal, and cellular research has shown some mushrooms may be able to up-regulate aspects of the immune system. Notable mushrooms used in Chinese herbology include Reishi and Shiitake.



Lycium barbarum,Wolfberry (枸杞子)

Wolfberry (枸杞子) is grown in the Far East and is grown from shrubs with long vines. The shrubs are covered with small trumpet-shaped flowers, which turn into small, bright red berries. The berries are usually fresh and sometimes used when dried.

TCM Information: Species: Lycium barbarum. Pinyin: Gou Qi Zi. Common Name: Chinese Wolfberry. Quality: Sweet, Neutral. Meridians: Liver, Lung, Kidney. Actions: Tonifies kidney and lung yin, tonifies liver blood, tonifies jing, improves vision.

Dang Gui

Dang Gui (当归, Angelica sinensis or “female ginseng”) is an aromatic herb that grows in China, Korea, and Japan.[citation needed]

TCM Information: Species: Angelica sinensis. Pinyin: Dang Gui. Common Name: Chinese Angelica Root. Quality: Sweet, Pungent(Acrid), Warm. Meridians: Liver, Heart, Spleen. Actions: Tonify blood, invigorate blood, regulate menstruation, relieve pain, unblock bowels by moistening intestine.


Astragalus (黄芪) is a root used for immune deficiencies and allergies.

TCM Information: Species: Astragalus membranaceus. Pinyin: Huang Qi. Common Name: Astragalus Root, Milkvetch Root. Quality: Sweet, Slightly warm. Meridians: Lung, Spleen. Actions: Raise yang qi to treat prolapse, tonify spleen and lung qi, tonify wei qi, increases urination, promotes drainage of pus, generates flesh.


Atractylodes (白术) is believed to be important in the treatment of digestive disorders and problems of moisture accumulation.

TCM Information: Species: Atractylodes lancea. Pinyin: Cang Zhu. Common Name: Atractylodes Rhizome. Quality: Pungent(Acrid), Bitter, Warm. Meridians: Spleen, Stomach. Actions: Strong to dry dampness, strengthens the spleen, induce sweating, expel wind-cold, clears damp-heat from lower jiao, improves vision.


Bupleurum (柴胡) is believed to be useful for

the treatment of liver diseases, skin ailments, arthritis, menopausal syndrome, withdrawal from corticosteroid use, nephritis, stress-induced ulcers, and mental disorders.

It is one of the most commonly used herbs in Chinese herbal remedies. Now the modern medicine research also indicates that this is a versatile herb.

Modern pharmacological actions

Bupleurum contains A, B, C, D types of saikosapoins, sterol, essential oils like bupleurumol and eugenol, fatty acids like oleic acid, linoleic acid, palmitic acid, and stearic acid, and polysaccharide, etc.


Cinnamon (桂枝, 肉桂), mostly gui zhi and rou gui, are twigs and bark from large tropical trees.[citation needed]

Studies show that cinnamon reduces serum glucose, triglyceride, LDL cholesterol, and total cholesterol in people with type 2 diabetes, and the findings suggest that the inclusion of cinnamon in the diet of people with type 2 diabetes will reduce risk factors associated with diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

TCM Information: Species: Cinnamomum cassia. Pinyin: Gui Zhi. Common Name: Cinnamon Twig. Quality: Pungent (Acrid), Sweet, Warm. Meridians: Heart, Lung, Bladder. Actions: Induce sweating, warms and unblocks channels, unblocks yang qi of the chest, treats dysmenorrhea.

  • Releases muscle layer and adjusts ying and wei qi levels
  • Useful in wind-cold-damp bi syndromes to warm channels and disperse cold
  • Resolves blood stagnation particularly from cold – dysmenorrhea
  • Unblocks yang qi in the chest – shortness of breath, chest pain, palpitations
  • Resolve edema and accumulation of cold phlegm

Species: Cinnamomum cassia. Pinyin: Rou Gui. Common Name: Cinnamon Bark. Quality: Pungent (Acrid), Sweet, Hot. Meridians: Heart, Kidney, Liver, Spleen. Actions: Tonifies kidney yang, leads fire back to its source, disperses cold, encourages generation of qi and blood, promotes blood circulation, alleviates pain due to cold, dysmenorrhea.

Coptis chinensis

Coptis chinensis (黄莲) is a rhizome that is one of the bitterest herbs used in Chinese medicine.

TCM Information: Species: Coptis chinensis. Pinyin: Huang Lian. Common Name: Coptis Rhizome. Qualities: Bitter, Cold. Meridians: Heart, Large Intestine, Liver, Stomach. Actions: Clears heat and drains damp, drains fire(especially from heart and stomach), eliminates toxicity.

Modern pharmacological actions of rhizoma coptidis

1. It has a strong antibacterial effect on staphylococcus, streptococcus, pneumococcus, Vibrio cholerae, Bacillus anthracis, and dysentery bacterium except Shigella sonnei;
2. It also has an antibacterial effect on Klebsiella pneumoniae, Corynebacterium diphtheriae, Bacillus subtilis, Bordetella pertussis, yersinia pestis, brucellosis, and tuberculosis;
3. It has poor antibacterial effect on E. coli, Proteus, and Salmonella typhi;
4. The berberine can stimulate the heart, increase its contractility, and increase coronary blood flow when used in small dose and suppress the heart and weaken its contraction when used in large dose;
5. The berberine can reduce the heart rate of toad and stimulate the isolated atria of rabbit, guinea pig, and rat. It can also resist arrhythmia, have good cholagogic action, inhibit gastric secretion, arrest diarrhea, prevent acute inflammation, fight cancer, reduce tissue metabolism, and so on. And small dose of berberine can strengthen the excitability process in mouse’s cerebral cortex while large dose instead can strengthen the inhibition process;
6. Berberine and tetrahydroberberine can reduce myocardial oxygen consumption;
7. Berberine and its extracts have anti-ulcer effect.



Ginger is consumed in China as food and as medicine.

Ginger (姜, 薑)Ginger is probably the most widely used and available herb on the planet.  Ancient fables and legends abound with tales of ginger and its many, many uses.  It is used in nearly two-thirds of Chinese and Japanese herbal remedies.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine, ginger is said to “rescue devastated yang,” a condition in which invading cold or infection has reached the interior of the body. Ginger warms the energy channels and stops bleeding, especially uterine bleeding. It is also a detoxifier.

TCM Information:

Species: Zingiber officinalis.
Pinyin: Sheng Jiang (生姜, 生薑).
Common Name: Fresh Ginger Rhizome.
Quality: Pungent(Acrid), Slightly warm.
Meridians: Lung, Spleen, Stomach.
Actions: Release the exterior, expel cold, warm the middle jiao, relieve nausea, transform phlegm, warm lung to stop coughing, treat toxicity, and moderate the toxicity of other herbs.
Species: Zingiber officinalis.
Pinyin: Gan Jiang (干姜, 乾薑).
Common Name: Dried Ginger Rhizome.
Quality: Pungent(Acrid), Hot.
Meridians: Heart, Lung, Spleen, Stomach.
Actions: Warms the spleen and stomach, restores devastated yang, warms the lung to transform thin mucus, warms and unblocks channels.

A few examples of ginger’s power:

    * clears lungs of congestion

    * will give relief for congested coughs and lungs

    * increases secretions of digestive enzymes

    * clears stagnation of food in the digestive tract

    * can alleviate nausea and vomiting

    * warms up internal cold

    * helps with scanty menses

    * relief from pain associated with menstrual cramps and ovulation

    * assists in lowering cholesterol and high blood pressure

    * has bactericidal and fungicidal properties


The use of the licorice plant (甘草) Glycyrrhiza glabra L. is thought to help treat hepatitis, sore throat, and muscle spasms.

TCM Information:

Species: Glycyrrhiza inflata or Glycyrrhiza glabra.
Pinyin: Gan Cao.
Common Name: Licorice Root.
Quality: Sweet, Neutral.
Meridians: All 12 channels, but mainly Heart, Lung, Spleen, Stomach.
Actions: Tonify spleen qi, moisten lung for dry cough, clears heat and fire toxicity, tonifies heart qi to regulate pulse, alleviates spasmodic pain, antidote for toxicity, moderates the effects of harsh herbs.


Ephedra (麻黄)

TCM Information: Species: Ephedra sinica or Ephedra intermedia. Pinyin: Ma Huang. Common Name: Ephedra Stem. Quality: Pungent(Acrid), Slightly Bitter, Warm. Meridians: Lung, Bladder. Actions: Induce sweating and release exterior for wind-cold invasion with no sweating, promotes urination, move lung qi for wheezing, cough or asthma.


Peony (白芍, 赤芍) comes in two varieties: bai shao (white) and chi shao (red), the root of the plant is used in both varieties.

TCM Information: Species: Paeonia lactiflora. Pinyin: Bai Shao. Common Name: White Peony Root. Quality: Bitter, Sour, Cool. Meridians: Liver, Spleen. Actions: Tonify liver blood, calms liver yang, alleviates flank/abdominal pain from liver qi stagnation or liver and spleen disharmony, preserves yin and adjusts nutritive and protective levels, regulates menses for blood deficiency problem.

Species: Paeonia lactiflora or Paeonia veitchii. Pinyin: Chi Shao. Common Name: Red Peony Root. Quality: Sour, Bitter, Cool. Meridians: Liver, Spleen. Actions: Clears heat, cools blood, invigorates blood and dispel stasis to treat irregular menses, dysmenorrhoea, amenorrhea, abdominal pain, and fixed abdominal masses.


Rehmannia (地黄) is a root where the dark, moist part of the herb is used.

TCM Information: Species: Rehmannia glucinosa. Pinyin: Sheng Di Huang. Common Name: Chinese Foxglove Root. Qualities: Sweet, Bitter, Cold. Meridians: Heart, Kidney, Liver. Actions: Clears heat, cools blood, nourishes yin, generates fluids, treats wasting and thirsting disorder.

Species: Rehmannia glucinosa. Pinyin: Shu Di Huang. Common Name: Chinese Foxglove Root Prepared with Wine. Qualities: Sweet, Slightly warm. Meridians: Heart, Kidney, Liver. Actions: Tonifies blood, tonifies liver and kidney yin, treats wasting and thirsting disorder, nourishes jing.



Chinese rhubarb depicted by Michał Boym(1655)

Rhubarb (大黄), used medicinally for its root, was one of the first herbs to be imported from China. 

TCM Information: Species: Rheum palmatum, Rheum ranguticum, or Rheum officinale. Pinyin: Da Huang. Common Name: Rhubarb Root and Rhizome. Quality: Bitter, Cold. Meridians: Heart, Large Intestine, Liver, Stomach. Actions: Purge accumulation, cool blood, invigorate blood, drain damp-heat.

Saffron (fan hong hua)

Saffron is arguably the most expensive herb in the world, due to amount of time and energy it takes to harvest. The term saffron actually refers to the dried stigmas and top of the saffron crocus, a type of flower similar to safflower.

In traditional Chinese medicine, saffron has a sweet taste and cold properties, and is associated with the Heart and Liver meridians. Its main functions are to invigorate the blood, remove stagnation, clear the meridians and release toxins. It is typically used to treat conditions such as high fevers and related conditions that may be caused by pathogenic heat, and to help break up blood clots.


Salvia (丹参) are the deep roots of the Chinese sage plant.

TCM Information: Species: Salvia miltiorrhiza. Pinyin: Dan Shen. Common Name: Salvia Root. Qualities: Bitter, Cool. Meridians: Heart, Pericardium, Liver. Actions: Invigorate blood, tonify blood, regulate menstruation, clear heat and soothe irritability.

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50 fundamental herbs of Chinese Herbal Medicine

In Chinese herbology, there are 50 “fundamental” herbs, as given in the reference text, although these herbs are not universally recognized as such in other texts. The herbs are:

Binomial nomenclature Chinese name English Common Name (when available)
Agastache rugosa huò xiāng (藿香) Korean Mint
Alangium chinense bā jiǎo fēng (八角枫) Chinese Alangium Root
Anemone chinensis (syn. Pulsatilla chinensis) bái tóu weng (白头翁) Chinese anemone
Anisodus tanguticus shān làng dàng (山莨菪)  
Ardisia japonica zǐ jīn niú (紫金牛) Marlberry
Aster tataricus zǐ wǎn (紫菀) Tatar aster, Tartar aster
Astragalus propinquus (syn.Astragalus membranaceus) huáng qí (黄芪) or běi qí (北芪) Chinese astragalus
Camellia sinensis chá shù (茶树) or chá yè (茶叶) Tea Plant
Cannabis sativa dà má (大麻) Cannabis
Carthamus tinctorius hóng huā (红花) Safflower
Cinnamomum cassia ròu gùi (肉桂) Cassia, Chinese Cinnamon
Cissampelos pareira xí shēng téng (锡生藤) or (亞乎奴) Velvet leaf
Coptis chinensis duǎn è huáng lián (短萼黄连) Chinese Goldthread
Corydalis yanhusuo yán hú suǒ (延胡索) Chinese Poppy of Yan Hu Sou
Croton tiglium bā dòu (巴豆) Purging Croton
Daphne genkwa yuán huā (芫花) Lilac Daphne
Datura metel yáng jīn huā (洋金花) Devil’s Trumpet
Datura stramonium[138] zǐ huā màn tuó luó (紫花曼陀萝) Jimson Weed
Dendrobium nobile shí hú (石斛) or shí hú lán (石斛兰) Noble Dendrobium
Dichroa febrifuga cháng shān (常山) Blue Evergreen Hydrangea, Chinese Quinine
Ephedra sinica cǎo má huáng (草麻黄) Chinese ephedra
Eucommia ulmoides dù zhòng (杜仲) Hardy rubber tree
Euphorbia pekinensis dà jǐ (大戟) Peking spurge
Flueggea suffruticosa (formerlySecurinega suffruticosa) yī yè qiū (一叶秋)  
Forsythia suspensa liánqiáo (连翘) Weeping Forsythia
Gentiana loureiroi dì dīng (地丁)  
Gleditsia sinensis zào jiá (皂荚) Chinese Honeylocust
Glycyrrhiza uralensis gān cǎo (甘草) Licorice
Hydnocarpus anthelminticus (syn. H. anthelminthica) dà fēng zǐ (大风子) Chaulmoogra tree
Ilex purpurea dōngqīng (冬青) Purple Holly
Leonurus japonicus yì mǔ cǎo (益母草) Chinese motherwort
Ligusticum wallichii chuān xiōng (川芎) Szechwan lovage
Lobelia chinensis bàn biān lián (半边莲) Creeping Lobelia
Phellodendron amurense huáng bǎi (黄柏) Amur cork tree
Platycladus orientalis (formerly Thuja orientalis) cè bǎi (侧柏) Chinese Arborvitae
Pseudolarix amabilis jīn qián sōng (金钱松) Golden Larch
Psilopeganum sinense shān má huáng (山麻黄) Naked rue
Pueraria lobata gé gēn (葛根) Kudzu
Rauwolfia serpentina shégēnmù (蛇根木), cóng shégēnmù (從蛇根木) or yìndù shé mù (印度蛇木) Sarpagandha, Indian Snakeroot
Rehmannia glutinosa dìhuáng (地黄) or gān dìhuáng (干地黄)[145] Chinese Foxglove
Rheum officinale yào yòng dà huáng (药用大黄) Chinese or Eastern rhubarb
Rhododendron tsinghaiense Qīng hǎi dù juān (青海杜鹃)  
Saussurea costus yún mù xiāng (云木香) Costus root
Schisandra chinensis wǔ wèi zi (五味子) Chinese Magnolia Vine
Scutellaria baicalensis huáng qín (黄芩) Baikal Skullcap
Stemona tuberosa bǎi bù (百部)  
Stephania tetrandra fáng jǐ (防己) Stephania Root
Styphnolobium japonicum (formerlySophora japonica) huái (槐), huái shù (槐树), or huái huā (槐花) Pagoda Tree
Trichosanthes kirilowii guā lóu (栝楼) Chinese Cucumber
Wikstroemia indica liāo gē wáng (了哥王) Indian stringbush

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