by guest blogger Alison Dressler

In the ever-changing global economy, many factors are at play that are effecting the world trade of Chinese herbs. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is arguably one of the oldest and most complex medical systems in existence, originating almost 5,000 years ago. While there are many modalities within TCM including qigong and acupuncture, herbal therapy is one of the strongest and most important pillars in TCM, enhancing all other treatments.  TCM literature, such as the Chinese Pharmacopeia, contains over 100,000 herbal medicinal recipes – evidence of the complexity of this medical system.

TCM is still the dominant medical system in China, despite the presence of Western medicine in recent years. At the same time, interest in Chinese Medicine outside of China is at an all-time high – resulting in certain plant species being over-harvested in China to satisfy this growing demand. While there is cultivation of some Chinese herbs within China, much of the land has been transformed to vegetable farming for export. Almost unbelievably, China is running out of land to grow herbal medicine for its own people as well as for the rest of the world.

In addition to China’s own supply difficulties, the demand for herbs originating from China has shifted. Detection of heavy metals, pollutants, and other chemical adulterants have been found in many of the herbs coming from China. This is very concerning as these herbs are medicine and the contaminants will lessen the potency of the medicine or cause digestive harm. Many of the large importers of bulk herbs are stating that now more than ever, pollutants are forcing them to look for alternative sources for Chinese herbs.

The Specialty Crops Program run by Dr. Jeanine Davis at NC State’s Mountain Horticultural Crops and Research and Extension Center is addressing these concerns by incorporating Chinese herb cultivation into the Specialty Crops Program. Dr. Davis’ program focuses on alternative crops for farmers interested in production diversification, including the cultivation of Western medicinal herbs. In 2010 this focus expanded to include Chinese herbs with Dr. Davis and colleagues leading a collaborative between representatives from community colleges, state universities, the extension service, private business, and interested landowners to form the Alternative Agricultural Working Group. This group began to address the issues of the supply and quality of herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), with the primary aim to explore the economic viability for Western North Carolina to become a reliable supplier of Chinese herbs by establishing six test plots throughout the region.

2011 was the second year for the initiative, with three more test plots established on farms in Western North Carolina. At the end of 2011, six growers of Chinese and/or Western herbs and a local herb distributor came together to form a cooperative business, Appalachian Botanical Alliance, that will continue the work of the Alternative Agricultural Working Group by expanding test plots and performing both laboratory and organoleptic analysis on the Chinese herbs grown in WNC. These herbs will be tested against herbs emanating from China in order to determine how local herbs compare to those imported from across the world.

goji berries (wolfberry)

Goji Berries

The herbs include Anemarrhena (Zhi Mu), Angelica (Dang Gui), Astragalus (Huang Qi), Chinese skullcap (Huang Qin), Chrysanthemum (Ju Hua), Goji Berry (Gou Qi Zi), Gynostemma (Jiao Gu Lin), Lobelia inflate, Peony (Bai Shao), Pinellia (Ban Xia), Polygonum (He Shou Wu), Danshen (Salvia miltiorrhiza), Schizandra (Wu Wei Zi), and Sophora (Shan Dou Gen).

One of the founding members of the Appalachian Botanical Alliance, Lisa Ziperman, works at Golden Needle – an Asheville based Chinese medicine distributor. Golden Needle has been wanting to work with local growers to supply Chinese and Western herbs, but the supply has just not been there. Appalachian Botanical Alliance is working to fill that gap and partner with Golden Needle on growing high quality, potent, medicinal herbs. This kind of grower-buyer relationship is what will enable Western North Carolina to truly become known for providing potent medicine from the earth.

Asheville, NC has been known as an herbal medicine mecca, with four herbal schools including one devoted to TCM – Daoist Traditions, and hundreds of herbal practitioners. Buyers have consistently noted that they desire herbs from Western North Carolina, but there has been insufficient supply. A very coordinated effort between buyers and growers is necessary in order for supply to be efficiently met. With an ideal growing climate for many Chinese herbs, a long-standing tradition of herbalism, and an array of herbal practitioners and acupuncturists, Western North Carolina is in a favorable position to establish itself as a reliable supplier of high quality, potent Chinese medicinal herbs.

For more information on Dr. Jeanine Davis’ program, please visit 

Affiliate Link: The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm: A Cultivator’s Guide to Small-Scale Organic Herb Production–Including 79 detailed herb profiles, growing information, and medicinal uses