Chinese medicine teaches that the health-promoting compounds in plants can be used to treat imbalance and improve your health.   The Chinese medicine classics chronicle thousands of herbs, teas, and foods known and their healing qualities.  Here are five medicinal plants you can grow in your backyard, a small kitchen garden, or even indoors. 

Bitter Melon is a strange vegetable that looks like an alien cucumber.  It has a memorable mouth-puckering flavor.  It is a vine plant, belonging to the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes squash, watermelon, and cucumbers.  Bitter melon requires at least three to four months of warm or hot weather to survive.  Plant your seeds in holes about half-inch deep, 12 inches apart, two seeds per hole.  Plants that can climb a trellis will be easier to pick and less likely to rot than ones that grow along the ground.  If you can’t put up a trellis, put down a layer of straw.  The fruit will be ready to pick in about 3 months.  If it turns from green to yellow and becomes spongy, it is overripe.  It can be cooked and eaten (there are many recipes online) or juiced for a more potent dose.

Benefits: Bitter melon contains beta carotene, potassium, calcium, and Vitamins C, B1, B2, and B3.  It is used in Chinese medicine to lower blood sugar, and clear liver and stomach heat.  It is not recommended for hypoglycemic people, pregnant or nursing women.

Cayenne Pepper (辣椒)Fructus Capsici

Cayenne pepper can be grown as a perennial in warm climates and an annual in temperate climates.  Start your seed indoors 2 weeks before the last frost.  They can be moved outside and planted 2 feet apart in about 6 weeks (or after all chance of frost has ended).  The plants will produce long, dark red fruit four or more inches long in 100 days or so.  Some people take Cayene Pepper in pill capsules as a supplement.  You also can dry and ground it to powder or flakes or slice it thin and add it to your cooking for an extra punch.  Just be sure to wash your hands before you rub your eyes!  

Benefits: The pepper contains potassium, manganese, and flavonoids as well as Vitamins C, B6, and E.  It is used in Chinese medicine to warm the stomach, improve digestion, and open the meridians. Not recommended for people with Yin deficiencies or those already taking blood thinners.  Too much can Cayenne can upset the stomach.

Chinese Yam (山药) Dioscorea Opposita

Chinese Yam is another twining vine.  The growing season takes about one year, but is well worth the wait.  Begin in March or April by planting whole small yams, or 4-5 oz chunks of the tops of larger yams as seed pieces.  Plant them 2-3 inches deep and 18 inches apart.  Again, supporting the vines with a trellis will have better results.  Your yams will produce cinnamon scented flowers between June and September.  The vine will produce bulbils, which you can eat or save to seed new plants.  It is time to harvest when the leaves start to get dry.  The tubers will be oblong and straight, and up to 3 feet long and ten pounds each!  Chinese Yams have a skin like a potato that should be peeled before cooking and a milky white flesh that becomes soft and flaky when cooked. You can use Chinese Yam in any recipe that calls for mealy potatoes.   Unlike other tubers, it can also be eaten raw.  I like to shred raw Chinese Yam and season it with vinegar.  

Benefits:  In Chinese medicine, it is used to strengthen the kidney and spleen.  If your hands and feet are cold due to Qi and blood deficiency, chicken and yam soup is a great option. Chinese Yam naturally contains estrogen, and over-consumption may cause hormone imbalance.  It may aggravate pre-existing constipation.  

Chrysanthemum (菊花)Flos Chrysanthemi Morifolii

Chrysanthemum is a beautiful flower tea.  The famous Chinese medicine text, Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica (神农本草经) says, “Taken over a long time it facilitates the qi and blood, lightens the body and prevents aging.”  You can start your Chrysanthemum from seed indoors 6 weeks before the last frost and then move them outside.  They can also be found as seedlings at many garden centers.  Look for bushy plants with white or yellow flowers.  After the last frost, plant them outside at least 2 feet apart.  Chrysanthemum does best in full sun and slightly sandy soil.  Your flowers will be ready to harvest in late October.  You can pick the flowers and dry them.  Or for a beautiful decoration, cut the stems, tie in bunches, and hang to dry (remove the flowers later when dry).  Pour hot water over a small handful of flowers, steep for 5 minutes, and enjoy your Chrysanthemum tea.  I also like adding goji berries to mine.  Note – Chrysanthemum does well as an indoor houseplant, and NASA studies have recorded excellent air-filtering qualities.

Benefits: Chrysanthemum contains volatile oils, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. It is used in Chinese medicine to clear wind and heat and calm the liver.  Try a cup of chrysanthemum tea if you are feeling over-heated from sun exposure, or if you have a headache.  If your eyes are dry or tired, soak a cloth in chrysanthemum tea and use it as a compress.  It is not recommended for those sensitive to low temperatures, or those who have loose bowels or a weak stomach. Chrysanthemum is toxic to dogs and cats.

Jiao Gu Lan (绞股蓝) Gynostemma Pentaphyllum

Jiao Gu Lan is a climbing tea herb that grows wild in the mountains of southern China. Start by soaking Jiao Gu Lan seeds in warm water for a day before planting them in seedling pots.  Placed where they can get partial sun, they will germinate in about a month.   Transplant your Jiao Gu Lan seedlings 1 foot apart in the early summer.  A partially shaded trellis is the best.  They prefer a moist location, so it is a good idea to mulch them with compost to help keep the soil damp.  Water every 3-5 days.  The vine will flower in late summer and will grow rounds seed pods that turn black.  Just before the flowers open, harvest the leaves and vine.  Cut the vine into hand-sized pieces and put them in a food dehydrator (or dry in the sun) along with the leaves until crisp and completely dry.  Store your tea in a jar in a cool, dry place.  Note – Jiao Gu Lan also does very well as a houseplant or in a hanging basket.

Benefits: Jiao Gu Lan is a natural adaptogen.  It is used in Chinese medicine to increase energy without over-stimulating, improve memory and focus, and strengthen the immune system.  Because of its immune stimulating function, it is not recommended for people with autoimmune disease.  It may slow blood clotting, and is not recommended for use before or after surgery or during pregnancy.

You don’t have to be an expert gardener to grow a few basic medicinal plants.  Gardening is also a great way to get exercise and calm your mind.  You may save some money, enjoy yourself, and create a healthier you!   As always, make sure to consult with a qualified health care practitioner before making and changes to your diet or taking any herbal supplement.