Shi Hu, Dendrobium Nobile- “Immortality Herb”

This last May I was fortunate to travel to China with my school, East West School for Planetary Herbology, to do clinical training in a Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital.  On one of our field excursions, we toured a demonstration garden for the school.  In one greenhouse there were rows and rows of a low growing plant called Shi Hu. I found a piece of the plant on the ground put it into my pocket, hoping to root it when I got home.  At this point, I have a very small plant that made the long plane trip and is starting to put on growth.

Shi hu is an orchid plant that often grows adjacent to trees such as pear or peach.  The plant consists of a long, thin stem, which is golden yellow in color, with a flower at the end. Dendrobium Nobile, also known as the Noble Dendrobium or Shi Hu in Pinyin, has been used for the medicinal purpose for at least 2,000 years. Different varieties of dendrobium have different colors, but the most common colors are yellow and pink. The plant has a long thin stem that is used for various herbal and medicinal treatments. Shi Hu grows wild and is harvested from November to February although at this point, wild Shi Hu is overharvested and it is now being cultivated in greenhouses like the one we saw.  True Shi Hu refers to dendrobium orchid, but much of what is available on the market is a substitute rather than true dendrobium.  It is common to see products that are sold as “wild” Shi Hu, but this is a case where much of it is cultivated and not wild. Most frequently Shi Hu is available in bulk or granules. According to Eric Brand of Blue Poppy, the best way to test the quality of Shi Hu is to chew it. The more fibrous the less quality, the more sticky it is the better quality it is.

Shi Hu has been used for more than 2,000 years in traditional Chinese medicine.  In the Taoist Canon, a collection of Taoist literature from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), it refers to Shi Hu as the first of nine “celestial herbs” with great health benefits.  In the Compendium of Materia Medica, written during the Ming Dynasty, Shi hu is described as affecting three channels of energy – the stomach, the lungs, and the kidneys.  The Chinese believe that the Dendrobium plant is ‘yin’ in nature and can be used to replenish fluids. It is commonly used as an Yin tonic to moisten the stomach, lungs and to replace kidney yin jing. It is very effective for treating conditions such as dry mouth, stomach pain, mouth sores, sunstroke, and other conditions caused by dry weather, pollution or smoke.

Let’s face it as we age we tend towards dryness and ingesting herbs that help to replenish fluids can be helpful.  Another reason that I love Shi Hu is that I often incorporate herbs into my soups and broths.  Shi hu has been used this way in Chinese cooking along with ginseng and chicken, duck, or lamb, for general health. Shi hu is now being adapted to new and creative uses including being made into juices and even dishes available at health spas. In a news article, I recently read, the flower of Shi Hu is made into a tea drink and even brewed into a clear liquor with 38 percent alcohol.

Among its many uses, the Chinese use dendrobium as a tonic for longevity. It is believed that when mixed with licorice roots and made into a tea it transmits healing energy to all parts of the body. There is a whole host of uses that are promoted in the commercial literature including the following:

  • Dendrobium helps moisten and nourish the skin and prevents dryness and flaky skin.
  • When air pollution and smoke dry out the lungs and air passages and increase thirst, dendrobium can be consumed for quick relief and to moisten the passageways.
  • Dendrobium is used as an effective tonic for the treatment of tuberculosis, flatulence, night sweats, anorexia, fever, and dyspepsia.
  • Dendrobium tonic improves the functioning of the lungs, kidneys, and stomach. It can reduce stomach pain and cramping and reduce vomiting.
  • It is believed that regular consumption of dendrobium can also treat sexual impotency.
  • Pain in the feet and hands, lumbago, and arthralgia can be treated with dendrobium extract.
  • Dendrobium can boost the immune system and help the body fight infections.
  • Dendrobium has long since been used to replenish lost fluids from the body and reduce severe thirst.
  • Natives of the Eastern Himalayas use dendrobium to heal problems with the eyes.
  • Dendrobium blossoms and stems are edible. Countries like Thailand and Singapore, deep fry these delicacies and eat them as snacks.
  • In Europe, dendrobium blossoms are used as edible cake decorations and as garnishes.
  • The Aborigines consider dendrobiums as emergency bush food.
  • Pickle is made from dendrobium flowers in Nepal.

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine:

Energy: sweet, slightly cold

Actions: Generates body fluids for the stomach; nourishes stomach Yin, mildly nourishes kidney Yin; clears heat; brightens the vision; strengthens the lower back.

Uses:

Nourishes Yin, clears Heat and generates fluids Parched mouth, severe thirst or intractable fever associated with Yin Deficiency, most commonly when the Fluids are injured during a warm pathogen disease
Enriches Kidney Yin and reduces Heat from Deficiency Yin Deficiency Heat and depleted Fluids with a recalcitrant low-grade fever, dry and painful throat and a red tongue with no coat
Tonifies the Kidneys, augments Jing, brightens the eyes, strengthens the tendons and bones and strengthens the low back Dull vision, dizziness and low back weakness and pain associated with Kidney and Liver Deficiency
Nourishes Stomach and Lung Yin Stomach and Lung Yin Deficiency with Empty Fire Rising

http://www.americandragon.com/Individualherbsupdate/ShiHu.html

Additional Note:  According to Eric Brand it can trap an EPI (Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency) in the body and prolong the sickness. If there is a chance of EPI, Mai men dong or Yu zhu is a better choice.

  • Bensky D, Gamble A. Chinese Herbal Medicine. Seattle: Eastland Press, 1986.
  • Flaws B (translator). The Book of Jook. Chinese Medical Porridges: A Healthy Alternative to the Typical Western Breakfast. Boulder, CO: Blue Poppy Press, 1995.
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