I stepped off the plane at the Beijing airport with a head full of questions. China is the largest exporter of medicinal herbs in the world, and I was about to immerse myself in this bounty of green wonders for the first time. How did a strong tradition of herbalism mesh with modern technology and urban sprawl? Was China truly the polluted cesspool I’ve heard so much about? What about sustainability—how are we ensuring some of our most treasured plants don’t disappear overnight?
The answers to these questions were far from Beijing, so I didn’t stay in the capital city for long. Instead, I headed northeast to a region known as Manchuria, or the “three eastern provinces”. Ever heard of Manchurian Spikenard? It’s an OG in the world of adaptogens. And one of my first clues that this area was rich in adaptogenic plants.
My destination on the Manchurian medicine trail was Changbai Shan, right on the North Korean border. Changbai Shan translates to ever white mountain and it’s the highest peak of the Changbai mountain range. It also happens to be an active volcano with a stunning caldera lake at the top! It’s not just stunning, it’s famous. Many people from all over China, S. Korea, and Japan flock to this remote part of the country to pay homage to Heavenly Lake. But I’m here for the plants, the plants that have whispered to healers for thousands of years.
And it turns out, I’m in the right place. The Changbai region is the largest nature reserve in China and is home to over 300 medicinal herbs. This is one of the true adaptogenic epicenters of the world—botanical powerhouses like ginseng, schisandra, reishi, rhodiola, and eleuthero all call these forests home. There are also over 80 species of trees here. I met our supply partner at the base of the mountain and we were greeted by firs, maples, and birches all donning their brilliant fall colors. After almost a week of planes and trains, cities and concrete, the mountain air filled my lungs with a startling sweetness—this may be one of the purest places left in China!
As we started winding our way up the mountain, our partner filled me in on why these forests are such a good source for herbs. First of all, it is pristine—unlike many areas in China, heavy metals and pesticides are not a risk here. Second, it’s a nature reserve and tightly controlled by the government. I saw many check-points along the road—these ensure no illegal harvesting without permits or quotas. Third, the herbs growing wild in these mountains conform to the Chinese concept of Di Dao, or authentic source. Herbs growing in their native environments generally have higher levels of medicinal action due to many variables including pest pressure, altitude, and soil conditions. Herbs sourced from Changbai Mountain are world-renowned for their purity and strength.
At Rasa, we source six herbs from China, three of which grow on this mountain: dandelion, eleuthero, and rhodiola. My hope was to catch a glimpse of these plants in the wild and get a feel for where and how they grow. Dandelion was easy—the plant grows everywhere! The yellow flowers and edged-leaves of this common and weedy plant were immediately comforting in a forest of unfamiliar flora.
Eleuthero was more difficult to track. But, as we bumped along a steep dirt road on our way to a remote forest ginseng farm our driver gave a shout—“Eleutherococcus!”—and slammed on the brakes. He had spotted the tell-tale black berries of this tree-like herb deep in the woods to our left. I jumped out of the car and waded in, excited to finally meet an herb I’ve studied and worked with for years. I allowed myself to sink in to the texture of the environment, to feel the vitality coursing through this special wilderness, and let respect and gratitude well up inside me.
Seeing eleuthero in the wild also gave me insight on why there are potential sustainability issues. This is a small tree with massive roots! Because of the size of this herb, it takes a long time for a stand to recover from intensive harvesting. The Chinese government controls the area, restricting some parts of the forest and giving quotas to the local farmers for harvests in other areas. Of course, many people don’t follow the rules and risk arrest and fines by going to the mountain at night and attempting to slip past inspection stations with a haul of illicit roots. Our wild Changbai eleuthero is certified organic and comes from very specific areas of the forests. While non-organic eleuthero from this region is not necessarily any different, the organic certification does ensure an extra layer of traceability and protection against illegal eleuthero harvests.
Rhodiola was by far the hardest to find and it eluded us the entire trip. This arctic root is found much higher up the mountain, often in the snow. The Chinese government recently placed severe restrictions on collecting rhodiola in the reserve to allow populations to recover. Due to heavy international demand, cultivation is underway in China, Canada, and Scandinavia. Hopefully this new cultivated material entering the market will help take pressure off the wild stands.
While I went to China in search of a handful of herbs, I met an entire herbal medical system. In the US, we often only see a front whisker or two of the ancient dragon of Chinese herbalism. There are thousands of Chinese herbs, but only a hundred or so are commonly exported and relatively easy for us westerners to get our hands on. Herbs in China still weave through daily life—herbs are easy to find in grocery stores, in traditional herbal pharmacies, in restaurants (ginseng and wild boar, anyone?), and are even found floating in hot springs! The juxtaposition of tradition and technology is not always smooth, but I was glad to know that China can still be a model for the type of herbal integration that I’d like to see in the US.
So why does an understaffed start-up send an employee all the way to China? To check on quality, safety, and conditions in a country know for foul play? To tour farms, forests, and facilities? All of these, definitely. But deeper than that, maybe it’s about a thread. A green thread of meaning that starts in the soil of a remote mountain range, weaves its way from plant to harvest to factory, and ultimately arrives in a cup half way around the world, where a morning ritual is taking place and a person is connecting to their heart, their power, and their inspiration. The touch of this green thread has changed our lives at Rasa, and we hope to do our part in honoring this thread and sharing it with others.