An “Invasive” Species
One of the most notorious stories in Traditional Chinese Medicine is about an herb, or about the story behind the man who discovered the medicinal benefits of an herb. The herb was named after him. The properties and benefits of this herb were life changing for the man who on a whim, with some cajoling, decided to eat it.
The Grand Materia Medica cites a ninth century legend, recorded by the Tang dynasty’s natural philosopher Li Ao in The Story of He Shou Wu. In this story, a man named Mr. He, is ailing and frail, suffering from infertility, unable to father children, and has a head of white hair. As described, Mr. He was 58 years old, and was in need of something to help him regain his health and vitality. Mr. He observed a plant in his vicinity, which had many vines and tendrils, and grew prolifically. At night the male and female parts of this plant would commingle and reproduce. Inspired by this observation he decided to prepare and eat it. He ate this herb regularly for years and in so doing regained his health and vitality. His hair turned black, his youthful appearance returned, and he subsequently fathered many children. The plant was named He Shou Wu, and the literal translation is “prepared crow-black-haired [Mr.] He.
Zhi He Shou Wu, or prepared He Shou Wu, is one of the most widely used herbs for nourishing the blood and preserving the essence. The properties of He Shou Wu are bitter, sweet, astringent, and slightly warm, and it enters the Liver and Kidney channels. Prepared it is used for patterns of yin or blood deficiency with symptoms of dizziness, blurred vision, premature greying of the hair, weakness in the lower back and knees, soreness in the extremities, nocturnal emissions, uterine bleeding, vaginal discharge, and insomnia. It strengthens the sinews and bones. Texts tout Zhi He Shou Wu as being superior to Di Huang or Tian Men Dong. These two herbs respectively address Kidney deficiency associated bone weakness, and Liver deficiency associated with sinew weakness and nerve pain. But, Zhi He Shou Wu is more effective because of its universal ability to enhance yin and blood without being cloying, too cold, too drying, too hot, or too dispersing. When prepared it becomes sweet and slightly warm, slightly astringent, and very harmonious.
The Westerner, perhaps today, only knows of this plant as an “invasive species.” Known also as Fo Ti, Chinese and Japanese Knotweed grow prolifically and are not easily eradicated, or removed. The article titled, “The Alien Shrub that Can’t Be Stopped,” posted to BBC Future on Friday October 7, 2022, by By Zaria Gorvett, outlines some very concerning aspects of Japanese knotweed.
Read the article here: https://apple.news/AxcYolai-Q2i8xYmXPXAAUA
Described in 1884, by botanist John Wood, it was first introduced to England on August 9, 1840 as among a number of “new plants” in a surprise package for Kew Gardens in London. What was probably considered novel and interesting at the time has become a problem for the generations. The author illuminates that this plant has become so tedious in England that would-be home owners in some cases cannot get a Mortgage approved if Japanese Knotweed is found to be on their desired property. Furthermore, it can decrease the value of a property by 5-15%, or even make the property “wholly worthless.” Interestingly though, this plant can regrow from micro particles of itself, even through hardened volcanic minerals, such as igneous rock.
I had quite a few smirks on my face reading this article. It raised and furrowed my eyebrows. I fiddled with my fingers, scratched my chin, rubbed my nose. I had a visceral engagement with this article.
We in Western society are so quick to snub a shrub that is “invasive.” We call them weeds when they are native, and “alien species,” when they originated somewhere else on the planet.
Some environments have been completely changed by the introduction of these “alien species.” They take over ecosystems and they threaten native species. I recall, growing up in the Bay Area, Pampus grass began to creep into a lot of the costal hillsides and shores in the early 1990’s. Now it is characteristic of the California coastline, even picturesquely Californian, though native to South America.
Another region that has had its entire environment reconstructed and is now unrecognizable is parts of Hawaii, namely Molokai. Captain Cook introduced Eucalyptus trees to the southern part of the island to draw more rain to the region for better crop health, etc. But ironically these trees changed the pH of the soil and made it inhospitable to crops. Yet, eucalyptus has a number of uses.
Kudzu Root is another herb that is considered invasive. Indeed it has dominated many a landscape. Take it from this article entitled, “The Invasive Vine that Ate the South.”
Also brought to a foreign environment for ornamental purposes, and for managing soil erosion, as this article suggests, it is not unlike Japanese Knotweed in its invasive potential.
However, Kudzu or Ge Gen, is also a very useful and important herb in Chinese Medicine. Its properties are sweet, acrid, and cool. its raises the clear yang qi, encourages the stomach qi, and thus releases muscle layer heat and toxins, vents rashes, alleviates thirst by raising stomach fluids, and treats diarrhea. The herb’s scope of action is thus documented in Records of Thoughtful Differentiation of Material Medica:
Anytime pathogenic cold has blocked a channel, and the pathogen shows a tendency to transfer but cannot, and there are symptoms of exterior heat, the Puerariae Radix (ge gen) can reach out to the exterior and release it. If the pathogen has already transformed into heat and entered the interior, or its heat is not suitable to be released through the exterior, then Puerariae Radix is of no use.
Ge Gen’s indications are stiff neck and back, absence of sweating, and aversion to wind. These symptoms are essentially the onset of a cold or flu. I can think of a number of viruses in our environment lately that might warrant such an herb. Given that measles has recently been documented in the USA, perhaps those who have Ge Gen on their property could stand to make some money harvesting and cultivating it.
Traditional Chinese herbal plant names are descriptive and poetic. They describe what seems like the spirit of the plant and how that relates to human health. They retain the concept of The Doctrine of Signatures. In the case of Ren Shen- Human Spirit, or Man’s Health, the characters 人参 are conceptual, not precise. They do not translate to Ginseng, what the chemical components are in the plant, such as ginsenoside.
So perhaps the spirit or nature of plants in Western thinking has been lost in translation to their chemical constituents. We would do well to think of a plant’s soul, it’s purpose in our environment and as supplements, instead of breaking them down into their chemical properties. I believe this Western approach takes away from our ability to appreciate an herb as a helpful entity that may have an intelligent design for why or how it becomes invasive.
What if we looked at these invasive species as being harbingers and messengers for the coming of pathogens, famine, or decline of soil nutrients? Indeed when we look at a weed that has crept into the cracks of our sidewalk, we can understand that weed is there because of a nutrient deficiency in the soil. Dandelion is like this, and the more we attempt to remove it, the smarter it gets. And yet, dandelion is another very useful herb that many consider an invasive weed. The confident gardener and herbalist know very well that once the weed has transformed the soil’s nutrients, it will no longer have a stronghold on the plot and it will no longer be able to sustain itself there. In other words, its job is done…
My takeaway from this discussion is to embrace the concept that humans have been able to thrive thanks to invasive species. Whether we know the substance or not, whether we have brought it to the ‘wrong’ environment or not, we need to appreciate its Doctrine of Signatures as a noble offering and a way to better understand our current and future environments without judgement. We need to look at not what this species has taken from us, but what it can contribute in abundance to our health, sustainability, and teach us about our ‘think local’ mentality.
On a much deeper level of consciousness, perhaps our knee jerk reaction in labeling things invasive, or harmful, or disruptive, is actually our inability to embrace what Carl Jung termed “The Shadow.” How often has this story played out in society, politics, policy, spoken or unspoken norms? How frequently is the us vs. them mentality accepted in our individual lives, and collective consciousness? I’ll argue here that this mentality is invasive and needs to be explored more thoroughly as a means to overcome the ill and subconscious effects of “The Ego.” Perhaps more poignant is to try to examine the Hegelian Dialectic of blame and accountability and expose it for what it is- an admission of deception by calling out the Ego in another entity. The truth is that it wouldn’t be recognized if it weren’t so inherently present in the accuser’s Shadow.
Western society has a very pompous sense of self, and an exceedingly tedious habit of eradicating a species like the smell of napalm in the morning. The irony in this thinking, is, that, some humans are absolutely an invasive species, so why would we not embrace that which will enhance our endurance and longevity, make us more resilient to pathogens, help detox our internal environment, and provide our soil with the lost nutrients?
I suspect that some of us humans are able to appreciate the here and now, flow with the environment, the climate, the resources, and revere the gifts the planet imbues into our daily existence. We are probably those humans that have at least sat with our Shadow Selves and taken steps to soften our encroaching Egos. We would be wise in not unplugging from this mentality of scarcity, doom, disaster, and turmoil (for it too is an invasive species), but exploring, accepting, nurturing, and enlightening it with a healthy discussion of why and how it is present and the extent to which it will make us stronger, more resilient, and better native humans.
View previous post “The Doctrine of Signatures, DoS” here: