The Barefoot Herbalogist: A Lesson in Herbal Identification

by Dave Jones on August 10, 2011

in The Barefoot Herbalogist

Herbalogic VP of Production Discusses the Properties of Clematis

Herbalogic Director of Product Development, or Resident Herb Nerd as we prefer to think of him, continues his exploration of the everyday plants and their place in the TCM pharmacopoeia.

The picture over there is of Clematis. It was growing on a fence up here at the ranch I was watching this summer.

It is a popular climbing vine for gardeners and I really didn’t notice it until someone said, “That’s a nice Clematis.” I thought to myself, “Clematis, Clematis… I know that as an herb.” So, being the huge nerd that I am, even when driving 2,300 miles away, I took my two favorite herbal references and looked up Clematis. Sure enough, there is a Clematis and it is called Wei Ling Xian, the mighty curative immortal. I was impressed — dramatic flower, dramatic name. This herb has it all.

But when I started doing more research I found that Wei Ling Xian is actually Clematis Chinensis and, after much more research than was warranted, I realized that this picture is of Clematis Jackmanii. Same family, different kids.

Back in TCM school, our western med professor told us when studying pharmacology, that all medicines are poisons.  We thought, you know, being the alternative medicine students that we were, that he was saying that big pharma was evil and made poisons.  We were using the wrong filter, what he meant was that anything you put in your body that forces a metabolic change is considered a poison.  The caveat being, if that metabolic change is predictable, desirable and has tolerable side effects then we elevate it from being poison to a drug.  So, what does this have to do with pretty flowers?

The prepared roots of Clematis Chinensis can be used to treat pain and oddly enough, obstruction of the throat by fish bone.  Those roots have a dose dependent, predictable desirable effect.  The roots of Clematis Jackmanii likely have a similar effect, but it lacks the predictability to use it medically.

Here is another example:  Guan Mu Tong (Aristolochiae manshuriensis) and Chuan Mu Tong (Clematis Armandii).  Their names in Chinese sound very similar but the Latin names tell a different story.  Chuan Mu Tong is very safe, Guan Mu Tong, not so much-  it contains a potent kidney toxin and should be avoided, unless your kidneys shutting down is the predictable effect you desire.

The whole point of this series is to highlight herbs that are literally under our feet.  Plants so common we overlook them, or plants that are common in gardens but are also herbs.  I really thought I had found some Wei Ling Xian, but was wrong.  I think this serves as an excellent reminder as to how important good herbal identification and education are. I am that we work with a group of talented people that stretches from the farms of China all the way to grocery store shelves here.


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