Chinese herb substitution and using local species


In a fantastic lecture by Dr. Arnaud Versluys this weekend, I was reinspired to consider a very real problem in Chinese herbal medicine.  We use herbs that travel long distances, are sometimes beset with chemical and heavy metal toxicity, are sometimes banned by ill-informed government agencies and some of which are becoming rare and, thus, expensive.  Given that I am very serious about a rigorously authentic Shang Han Lun and Jin Gui focused herbal practice, I am not one to willy-nilly make substitutions that just “seem to work.”

The particular herb that came up in discussion about this issue was Xi Xin – Asarum – Wild Ginger.


I love this herb.  It’s used in a couple of indispensible formulas, perhaps most importantly in Dang Gui Si Ni Tang.  Most herbalists agree that there’s simply no substitute for Xi Xin, but I’ve seen or heard of people try to replace it with Wu Tou, Yu Jin, Sheng Jiang + Mai Men Dong (?!) and other interesting combinations.  Most of these same herbalists agree that it’s simply not the same without Xi Xin.

The ban on Xi Xin for practitioners is ridiculous to the extreme and I’m not going to discuss that here.  What I would like to hear people discuss is how they make substitutions in these cases.  When an herb you need isn’t around, what do you do?  What herbs have you had to learn to live without?  I understand that UK herbalists are quite restricted in what they can prescribe – how have my UK readers dealt with this problem?  Even when a governmental agency isn’t busy interfering, we sometimes lose herbs.  Consider Xi Jiao, rhino horn.  Consider the precarious state of Ren Shen, ginseng.

There are a couple of associated questions that come up when one considers this issue.  One is – should we simply learn to work with fewer, simpler herbs?  Dr. Versluys is known to say that he thinks he could do a fair job of treating patients with only 10 herbs – a set of cooling herbs in each of five flavors and a corresponding set of warming herbs.

If you know formula science and architecture, such artistry is certainly possible.  Is this the standard towards which we should strive?  It seems far superior to the never ending quest for the “perfect herb for cancer” or memorizing five hundred herbs, over half of which are specialized for particular symptoms.

Taking this a little bit farther, we should consider the wisdom of relying on herb sources that can only be accessed by air shipments from another continent.  Given peak oil, given the unstable political nature of our planet, given the environmental crisis we find ourselves in… should we at least consider the possibility that we may need to rely on local sources for our herbs at some point in the future?

My friend said an interesting thing to me today.  In the course of discussing this various issue he said, “To be true Classical Chinese herbalists, we should use the herbs we find around us.” I didn’t question him any farther on this issue, but I think he’s right from some perspectives.  Learning the Chinese herbs and formula science so deeply that it is second nature allows us to look at all plants, animals and minerals with the eyes of a Classical Chinese herbalist.  Then it seems at least possible that we could, if necessary, find other materials that meet the needs of our patients.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this rambling post.  Doubtless there are many opinions out there – share them here on Chinese Medicine Central by responding in the comments.  No registration is necessary and you can even post anonymously if you are respectful.


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About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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