Name: Dang Shen (Codonopsis pilosula)
Otherwise known as: Poor Man’s Ginseng, Codonopsis
Habitat: A climbing perennial of the Campanulaceae family growing up to 2m in fertile thickets in mountain ranges and native to northern China. It has broad, heart-shaped leaves with green and purple pendulous, bell-like flowers on long thin stalks. It is grown for its root, which is harvested after three years growth and dried for the ever growing herbal medicine market.
What does it do: Dang Shen has been known to Chinese Medical Practitioners for millennia as a stimulant for Qi – life force – but only recently has come to prominence in the western world where it is valued as a substitute for ginseng because it does not have the deleterious side effects.
The plant contains polysaccharides, acetylcholines, phenols and alkaloids. It was very popular between the World Wars with mariners in the Chinese ports as it was thought to be a prophylactic for gonorrhea. In the mainstream of Chinese Medicine its role is manifold. It is given to infants when the mother is unable to produce sufficient milk to develop muscle growth; to recovering invalids and convalescent cases; to promote mental acuity, to reduce blood pressure by dilating the vascular system, and more recently to suppress leukopenia (white cell poverty) while undergoing treatment for AIDS, chemo and radiotherapy.
A research group at Princeton University noticed that the capacity of the plant to suppress the flow of adrenaline reduced stress in rabbits. The same group was certain that the compounds in the root were beneficial to dementia patients.
In China TCM practitioners recommend Dang Shen for diabetes, breast cancer, arrhythmia, loss of appetite and insomnia.
Alexander McCowan is author of The World’s most Dangerous Plants