Codonopsis tangshen (bellflower)
Codonopsis tangshen is an unusual climber, bearing subtle, yellowish-green, bell-shaped flowers, with purple markings on the inside; the root is used in China to make a tonic.
About this species
This climbing perennial bears subtle, beautiful, bell-shaped flowers in late summer. It thrives as an ornamental in gardens of western Europe where the climate is similar to that of its home in China. The British plantsman Ernest Wilson collected seeds and specimens of Codonopsis tangshen for the nurserymen Messrs Veitch & Son, and in their book Hortus Veitchii (1906) C. tangshen is described as having been ‘raised from seed from central China, where, considered an important drug, and used amongst the very poor as a substitute for costly ginseng, it is known as t’ang-shên.’ Codonopsis tangshen is still important in traditional Chinese medicine today.
Geography & Distribution
Native and endemic to six provinces of central and western China (Chongqing, Guizhou, Hubei, Hunan, Shaanxi and Sichuan), where it is found at elevations of 900 - 2,300 m.
A perennial with climbing stems up to 2 m or more and long, fleshy, tuberous roots. The leaves are green and ovate. The bell-shaped flowers are pale yellowish-green, veined at the base with internal with purplish markings and measuring up to 2.3 cm long.
Illustration from Curtis's Botanical Magazine
Codonopsis tangshen by Matilda Smith (1906), taken from Curtis's Botanical Magazine (Image: RBG Kew)
The specimen of Codonopsis tangshen illustrated in Matilda Smith's hand-coloured lithograph after a watercolour painting had been received from Messrs James Veitch a few years previous to its appearance in Curtis's Botanical Magazine in 1906.
Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (Editor: Martyn Rix) provides an international forum of particular interest to botanists and horticulturists, plant ecologists and those with a special interest in botanical illustration.
Now well over two hundred years old, the Magazine is the longest running botanical periodical featuring colour illustrations of plants. Each four-part volume contains 24 plant portraits reproduced from watercolour originals by leading international botanical artists. Detailed but accessible articles combine horticultural and botanical information, history, conservation and economic uses of the plants described.
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Codonopsis tangshen is extensively cultivated in China as a medicinal plant. The dried roots ( dang shen or chuan dang shen) are used in traditional Chinese medicine as a tonic and to treat anaemia and palpitations. It is also grown in the West as an ornamental for its attractive bell-shaped flowers.
Codonopsis tangshen is suitable for cultivation in loose, peaty soil in sun or partial shade.
This species at Kew
Pressed and dried specimens of Codonopsis tangshen are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers from around the world, by appointment. The details of some of these can be seen online in the Herbarium Catalogue. Specimens of the roots are also held in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection.
William Thiselton-Dyer and Kew’s Rock Garden
In 1906, when writing the text accompanying the painting of Codonopsis tangshen in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, William Thiselton-Dyer (Director of Kew, 1885–1905) noted that ‘a plant from the same source [Veitch] is growing in the Rockery at Kew’. The Rock Garden at Kew was an area of particular interest to Thiselton-Dyer, as he had played a large part in its design some years earlier.
Kew’s work on authentication of economically important species
Since the early 1990s there has been a large increase in the diversity of plant-based products entering world trade for use in cosmetics, herbal medicines (especially traditional Chinese medicines), food, potpourri, colouring agents and pet products. Kew is investigating these using a range of morphological as well as chemical and DNA fingerprinting methods to check the identity of species traded and to study whether plant-derived products contain the appropriate range of compounds for their proposed use. Over 1,000 species and over 1,500 extracts have been studied so far.
Although the majority of traded items have proven to be of the correct species, Kew’s authentication work has uncovered a number of substitute poor quality and occasionally counterfeited species. Such herbal substitution and counterfeiting often arise due to problems of supply and demand and in such cases there is a urgent need to introduce sustainable harvesting practises or more extensive cultivation so as to remove pressures from wild populations.
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