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Chinese medicinal plants and their materia medica

A UK-China multi-disciplinary project researching the botanical identity, quality and nomenclature of Chinese medicinal plants and their commercially traded materia medica. The project combines botanical fieldwork in China, trade studies and state-of-the art pharmacognosy techniques relevant to modern healthcare and the sustainable supply of source plants.

Project details

Project Department: 
Funded By: 
Kew Foundation; Weston Foundation; Kirby Laing Foundation

Objectives and outputs

The problem

Chinese herbal medicine has a history dating back almost 5,000 years and is the most well-documented of all traditional healthcare systems. Today it is fully integrated into China’s national healthcare system (as a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine - TCM) and is practised in over 100 countries. TCM’s rapidly growing global market in herbal materia medica (dried medicinal herbs) is worth about 48 billion US dollars annually (WHO, 2012) and reflects not only TCM’s popularity but the growing interest in these plants by the natural product, nutraceutical and cosmeceutical sectors.

Some production areas in China can no longer meet this rising demand such that herbal identity and quality is being compromised, sometimes with serious health consequences for patients (sometimes fatal). The development of quality assurance monographs and natural product research is also hampered by difficulties in accessing reliable reference herbs and knowledge gaps in traditional pharmacognosy (such as herbal authentication).   

The solution

Since 1998, this Kew project has sought to address these issues by using Kew’s world-class plant identification resources to create a Chinese Medicinal Plant Authentication Resource. Central to this has been the guidance received from our long-standing academic partner in China, the Institute of Medicinal Plant Development, Beijing. The objectives and activities below provide an outline of progress to date and highlight our future plans. The project also depends on its wide networking activities in China and the West spanning herbal suppliers, medical practitioners, health and conservation regulators, and botanical and ethnopharmacological researchers both in academia and industry. 

Kew’s role in the project

  • Field-work expeditions in China, botanical verification and curation of reference specimens.
  • Macro-morphological and laboratory-based authentication research; e.g. DNA identification of substitutes, adulterants and plants of conservation concern, notably CITES-listed species.
  • Research and mapping of scientific and trade names (jointly with Kew’s Wellcome-funded Medicinal Plant Names Services (MPNS) project.
  • Trade studies to detect patterns of herbal substitution and counterfeiting to highlight supply and demand issues.
  • Digital management of specimen and image collections of Kew’s new online resources (Useful Plants and Fungi Portal and Plants of the World Online Portal).


  • To create a large-scale resource centre of Chinese medicinal plants and their materia medica (dried and processed medicinal plant parts) as a scientific reference point for herbal quality assurance, natural product research, safe medical practice and herbal regulation.  
  • To enhance the quality of identification of Chinese herbal materia through the provision of resources such as herbal monographs and identification guides.
  • To develop a range of projects targeted at the conservation and sustainable use of those Chinese medicinal plants threatened by over-harvesting, habitat loss or climate change.   
  • To research and improve knowledge of Chinese materia medica during the last 150 years, a period of rapid change in China’s history. This innovative activity will engage experts across botany, sinology and social history so as to provide a window into the transformation of science and society in China and to better understand the role of Chinese herbs in healthcare around the world.


  • A Kew-based resource centre of scientifically verified Chinese materia medica including those in current medical use today and their easily confused substitutes. Started in 1998, this long-term collaborative programme (with the Institute of Medicinal Plant Development, Beijing) carries out field-collecting of fresh plant material in China and adopts traditional processing methods (e.g. dry-frying with salt, wine or bran) to create top-quality authentic medicines of known provenance. Current collections total about 5,000 accessions which represent 80% of plants in the 2015 edition of Chinese Pharmacopoeia
  • Digitised information and photos to be managed in Kew’s new databases on useful plants and species under threat.
  • New research collaborations in China and the West to deepen our understanding of the role of Chinese medicinal plants in modern healthcare around the world, leading to five books and 20 papers in open-access academic publications over the next five years.
  • A major illustrated book, Chinese Medicinal Plants, Herbal Drugs and Substitutes: an identification guide, to enable identification of authentic materia medica in international trade and commonly confused substitutes and counterfeits (published 2017).

Partners and collaborators




Chen, S., Yitao, W., Zhao, Z. Z., Leon, C. & Henry R. J. (2015 eds). Sustainable utilisation of TCM resources. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 501: 613836. Available online

Chen, S., Pang, X., Song, J., Shi, L., Yao, H., Han, J. & Leon, C. (2014). A renaissance in herbal medicine identification; from morphology to DNA. Biotechnology Advances 32(7):1237-44. DOI: 10.1016/j.biotechadv.2014.07.004

Chan, K., Shaw, D., Simmonds, M. S. J., Leon, C., Qihe, X., Aiping, L., Sutherland, I., Ignatova, S., You-Ping, Z., Verpoorte, R., Williamson, E. M. & Duez, P. (2012). Good practice in reviewing and publishing studies on herbal medicine, with special emphasis on traditional Chinese medicine and Chinese materia medica. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 140: 469-475.

Chen, S., Yu-lin, L., Zhong-zhi, Q. & Leon, C. (eds, 2010).  A coloured identification atlas of Chinese Materia Medica and Plants as specified in the Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China. Chinese Pharmacopoeia Commission, 2 vols, 1236 pp. 

Farah, M.H., Edwards, R., Lindquist, M., Leon, C. & Shaw, D. (2000). International monitoring of adverse health effects associated with herbal medicines. Pharmacoepidem. & Drug Safety 9: 105-112.

WHO (2012). The Regional Strategy for Traditional Medicine in the Western Pacific (2011-2020). World Health Organization, Western Pacific Region.