Medicine - Plants in Asian medicine

All the great Asian medical traditions embrace herbal medicine, using a wide variety of plant species. Medicines might originate from any part of a plant, be it the flowers, stems, leaves, fruits, roots or bark.

Plant drugs

Harvesters pay particular attention to the places where plants grow, the time they are harvested and their method of processing. In addition, some traditions include animal products, metals, minerals and precious gems in their remedies.

Drug qualities

Plants and other ingredients are classified primarily by the five tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, pungent and salty) of the Chinese medical tradition and by the six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent/hot and astringent) of Ayurveda and the Tibetan medical tradition. These further correspond with the five elements - earth, metal, water, wood and fire (Chinese system) and earth, fire, water, air and space in the Indian and Tibetan traditions. Also taken into consideration are the properties (hot/cold, heavy/light, smooth/rough and dull/sharp). The appropriate remedy is then prescribed to restore the balance of the patient.

New developments

A colourful market, with sacks of plant drugs in a large hall
Medicinal plant market in China.

With the ever-increasing popularity of herbal remedies in both East and West, it is vital that the identification of the plant is correct and its safety taken into account. One European organisation working in this field is the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where a Chinese Medicinal Plants Authentication Centre (CMPAC) has been established. Its research focuses on the identification and herbal quality of Chinese medicinal plants available on the international market. Species are collected in China, together with look-alike plants which may be easily confused with the authentic species. These are carefully verified and stored at Kew, then 'finger printed' using chemical and DNA techniques in order to improve the safety and quality of herbs on the market.

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