Walking through the market area of Ko Shing Street in central Hong Kong, you can’t help but be impressed by the tremendous assortment of natural herbal products. Here, herbs are an essential part of life, often being combined with food and water. A soup will have ginger root for digestion, a bit of lemongrass for maintaining a calm and easy feeling, and some shiitake mushrooms for immune enhancement.
A stop at a tea stall gives you a large menu of options. Do you choose between the umeboshi plum and cinnamon tea, or the five-flavor tea? The latter contains the jujube, a Chinese date purported to alleviate stress, licorice root for liver protection, astragalus to boost production of immune factors, and other flavors I could not identify.
In the tradition of Chinese medicine, herbs in Hong Kong are not sequestered in a cabinet in capsules to be “taken” like aspirin. Instead, they are intermingled with foods and beverages, used not only as remedies, but to prevent illness before the need for a remedy ever arises.
I stop to ask directions and see that the man I am addressing is drinking green tea with chrysanthemum blossoms – a common blend. The green tea, with its heart-enhancing and anti-cancer activities, blends nicely with the fragrant chrysanthemum, long used to prevent colds and fevers. As I walk by a stall, I see a woman snacking on goji berries, dried like raisins and rich in antioxidants including zeaxanthin, which can help to prevent macular degeneration – a primary cause of adult blindness.
To the residents of Hong Kong, asking which herb to “take” is like asking which fruit to eat. Just as you might enjoy grapes, apples, plums, cherries and bananas, so too you utilize the many flavors, benefits and applications of herbs on a regular daily basis. And while fads drive western sales of one big herbal product after another, in Hong Kong, all herbs have their place in the natural healing cornucopia.
The displays of ginseng roots and ginseng preparations seem endless. In one shop, two men with shovels scoop about half a ton of dried ginseng roots into one large pile. In other shops, the ginseng roots are sorted and displayed in large barrels according to size, age and shape. Very old roots are sold in frames at very high prices. The name Panax ginseng means panacea, or cure-all. And though ginseng dos not in fact cure everything, its salutary benefits are legion. It helps to enhance endurance, stamina, sexual function, and cognitive capacity. It makes you feel terrific and adds strength to your day, even in the withering heat and humidity of tropical Hong Kong.
Other shops feature reishi mushrooms in large piles. Also known as the Mushroom of Immortality, reishi contains potent immune-enhancing factors and is often given to people recovering from chemotherapy to rebuild the immune system. Additionally, reishi actively fights cancer, protects the liver against damaging toxins, and contains highly effective anti-viral agents. Depicted in Chinese artwork since antiquity, reishi is typically boiled and drunk as a longevity tea with other herbs.
At one herbal shop, large pieces of rolled bark are stacked high. I take a sniff and catch the delightfully sweet and sharp smell of cinnamon. With its delicious flavor and insulin-like properties, cinnamon stabilizes blood sugar, while giving off a fragrance and sweet accent to the cookies that sell in the next shop.
Back at my hotel, I am offered tea with lunch. Do I want the Pu-erh, whose natural content of cholesterol-lowering lovastatin makes it a heart-healthy choice, or do I want the regular green? It’s a relaxed meal on an easy day; I’ll have a cup of each.
Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at MedicineHunter.com.