‘The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm’ Book Review

Reader Contribution by Pamela Sherman
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If you are a gardener or farmer in North America thinking of growing Asian medicinal herbs, mostly Chinese, The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm: a Cultivator’s Guide to Small-Scale Organic Herb Production was written for you. It’s both a how-to and reference guide. If you consume or prescribe Chinese medicinal herbs and want to understand why your growing them regeneratively is crucial (hopefully you do!), chapters one, two, and five are for you. This substantial book is colorful, beautifully laid-out, and easy to read.

The popularity of Chinese medicine has exploded all over the world. Demand for Chinese medicinal herbs has outstripped supply of plants harvested traditionally, ie. from the wild and in an ecologically renewable manner. This is partly due to sheer volume of clients, but also to dwindling intact wild ecosystems in China and other countries traditionally harvesting them. Supply is also down due to urbanization, pollution, over-harvesting, and climate change–like everywhere.

To remedy this situation, China has started farming medicinal plants as monoculture crops, but is said to use pesticides. Even organic medicinals, when tested on arrival in the U.S. can show pesticide levels higher than the standard, likely due to drift. In addition, traditional Chinese medicine is wild-foraged, not monocropped. Traditional germplasm does not respond on command to huge-scale commercial agricultural regimentation like long-cultivated crops.

Furthermore, when the dried medicinal herbs finally arrive in North America after weeks of storm-tossed sea travel, these weary travelers are often the worse for wear, testing out with lower levels of medicinal properties than a plant grown closer to the end user.

We are in a great transition here, everyone trying to do what they can to ensure these plants thrive with the medical efficacy expected of them.

A Guide for North American Growers

Schafer’s goal with this book is to get you, the North American grower, to learn how to grow these medicinal crops to the highest of quality control standards, as she does — her crop products score high on medicinal lab analyses — and in an ecologically regenerative, organically certified way. She brings in more traditional medicinal wild-farming techniques as feasible for a production grower. These semi-domesticated crops need a loving, careful farmer who can keep an eye on them and respond as they grow; this book starts the training.

Part One of the book, Cultivating to Conserve: Connecting with Quality Asian Botanicals, has chapters on: Farming to be Part of the Solution – risks and solutions and assessing, regulating Herb Quality, Cultivation in the Nursery, Garden, and Field, which includes planning, seed starting and propagation, managing the soil, the planting, seasonal care, and invasive plant risk. The chapter Harvest and Marketing includes drying, storing, shipping fresh and dried, seed saving, selling, and GAPs — good agricultural practices. The last covers Conservation and Global Trade in Medicinal Plants.

Part Two is 79 Medicinal Herb Profiles – plants Schafer has grown for years and knows well. (She grows many more than are spotlighted in the book. Check out her website, ChineseMedicinalHerbFarm.com.

In each entry, Schafer gives specifics on botany, geographical and soil preference of the plant, propagation, germination, polyculture companion plants, field production, pests and diseases, some major medicinal uses, harvesting techniques and expected yields for each on her ten-acre Petaluma farm, as well as identifying color photos of the herb both fresh and dried.

Considerations for Different Climates

Particularly useful for those who live outside northern California and want to know what to grow are the Regional Adaptability Table, individual plant lists and the appendices: Plant and Medicinal Name Cross-Reference Lists, a China/U.S. latitude overlay map, China and U.S. hardiness zones maps, a climate and precipitation map and key for China and a Chinese province map. 

Some plants have a narrow range of growing requirements, but others are generalists.To find out what might grow in my area, the Rockies over 8,000 feet, very different from coastal northern California. I consulted the tables and maps, then went through the plant profiles, noting zone and other growing requirements, and came up with a starting list. Schafer was glad to know there are interested growers up this high, as the Himalayan medicinal plants are perhaps the most endangered of all Asian medicinal plants. She encouraged me to seek out other Himalayan plants not on her list as well. 

A few years ago, some of Schafer’s farm interns — Chinese medical students,  practitioners, farmers, and herbalists — formed a nonprofit, the Lilium Initiative, to assist growers anywhere in the U.S. to learn from Schafer and other mentors in growing to the highest medicinal and regenerative standards. It is also starting to help such growers connect with processing companies and licensed Chinese medicine practitioners to whom farmers can sell. The Lilium Initiative now has a new google group where member growers and supporters can connect with each other and discuss best practices and other topics. 

The only subject not covered is herb market prices. Some of these herbs, endangered or almost extinct in their endemic regions in China and even more so in the Himalayas, can/could command a fair yet substantial price when grown to these standards and sold in North America. Lilium Initiative members will be exploring this potential. 

For serious growers and curious supporters of traditional Chinese medicine, The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm is the essential basic reference.

Pam Sherman blogs for Mother Earth News, gardens at altitude, and can be found at  Colorado Local Food & Regenerative Ag Hub.You can read all of Pam’s Mother Earth News postshere.

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