Simple beauty – Exploring the Chinese herb 甘草 / Gancao / licorice

The chinese herb Gancao growing in Portland Oregon

My baby Gancao plants

One of the happy side effects of being a Chinese herb teacher is that I get to learn more about Chinese herbs.

As I prepare for my latest teaching opportunity, I find myself thinking a lot about herbs that are commonly overlooked in texts, in online interactions and in most college/university courses.  This includes less understood herbs like Fuzi, Caowu and Tongcao but, especially, extremely common herbs like Dazao and Gancao.  As a Chinese herb dork – I love them all.

Over the coming weeks, I’d like to share what I uncover about one of these stalwart friends – Gancao.

I’ll be sharing in the same order that I commonly work.  Even when I know an herb fairly well, when called to study it again, I follow well-worn paths of exploration.

In brief, I look into:

  1. The basic data available about the herbs in standard Chinese herbal textbooks.  This especially includes comparing and contrasting different interpretations.
  2. Information I can get – if any – from a live specimen.  This includes more esoteric stuff (plant spirit type exploration) but also simple botanical observations.
  3. Anything I can learn about different preparations of the Chinese herb and other “herb industry” information.
  4. Ecological and lifecycle information – learning how it grows, when, where, under what circumstances, and how that has changed over time due to cultivation and habitat shifts.
  5. Information from as many classical Chinese sources as possible.  I typically limit myself to Han dynasty texts and anything I can get from Sun Simiao.
  6. Notes and conversations with my teachers as well as patient data from my own records.
  7. Sensory exploration from touching, tasting, looking at and playing with the herb in various forms.
  8. Biochemical information as well as any interesting scientific studies into the plant and its constituents.
  9. I’m fortunate to have lots of Chinese herb related student projects to look through – sometimes these yield interesting information I wouldn’t have found elsewhere.  This is particularly true of creative interpretation type projects.
  10. Perhaps most importantly, though I list it here at #10, is information that comes from the formulas/relationships that the herb finds itself in.  Of course, in the case of Gancao – that’s very many indeed.  Partly, I like to look at the dynamics of the formula, but also noting if it’s in a lot or just a few is information in and of itself.

Other bits and pieces of information come up, depending on the herb.

What do I do with all this information?

Well – I put it in my database (of course) for one.  While I’ve posted EXTENSIVELY about Evernote, and still use it about a hundred times a day, I’m mostly using Devonthink right now for medical information.  I go back and forth as software evolves.  I like Devonthink for its artificial intelligence features – they make finding connections just that much easier, accelerating my learning process.

Having this information in my database (and synced to my iPhone & iPad) allows me to access it before it’s memorized, and also to remind me in those frequent cases that my memory simply doesn’t serve.

But, more than that, I study this information.  My study process for a Chinese herb (and most other htings) at this point has four major pieces:

  1. Reading, sitting, tooling around : This is the fact finding part.  I research, but I don’t push too hard.  I read, I engage, I write down what comes to me.
  2. Filling in the gaps : This is a more intensive process.  After the first phase is done, I look around for things I don’t understand or wasn’t able to find at all.  For instance, if I learned a ton about an herb, but couldn’t figure out where it was typically grown, I’ll go hunting.
  3. Writing or teaching about it : Whether my unwitting peers and family or my slightly less unwitting students, I like to solidify what I’m learning by trying to tell other people about it.  Sometimes that’s on the blog, sometimes it’s on other private online projects, and sometimes live and in person.
  4. Organize everything : As a final step, I review what I’ve learned and try to codify it into something concise and informative.  Sometimes, that’s a single sheet of information, but more typically it’s a small digital “booklet” of information.  These are revised as more information comes in – another place where the database comes in handy.

During this whole process, I’m usually using the herbs in practice of course.  My initial education, including the many extra curricular seminars I enjoyed, were more than enough to make me competent.  My years of practice since then have added to my knowledge and ability.  But, there’s always reason to study.

Particularly for a youngin’ like me.

So what’s next?

In the next post, I’ll divulge all the information that falls under “basic info” for me.  This is the stuff I get from books and other standard sources, though not all of it will be familiar to everybody.  Then, I’ll go from there.  You’ll learn with me.  To be fair, Gancao is an herb I know quite a bit about, and have growing in my garden.  So, some of what I will be doing is just going back over information – reorganizing – adding – reconfiguring – enlivening.  But, it should be fun.  I’ll not be able to share everything publicly – some information was bequeathed to me in lineage confidence – but most everything is fair game.

Sounds like fun, right?

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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