History of Jiaogulan

History of Jiaogulan – Chapter II
from Jiaogulan “China’s Immortality Herb” by Michael Blumert

Traditional Uses

Although jiaogulan grows in many Asian countries, there does not seem to be any early historical documentation in existence other than in China. The earliest information available on jiaogulan dates back to the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.), when Zhu Xiao first described the plant and presented a sketch of it in the book Materia Medica for Famine in 1406 A.D.. But he recognized it only as a wild crafted plant used as food or a dietary supplement during famine, rather than as a medicinal herb.1 Later, about 1578 A.D., the renowned herbalist Li Shi-Zhen also described jiaogulan in detail and with a sketch in his classical book Compendium of Materia Medica. He pointed out that this herb could be used to treat hematuria, edema and pain of the pharynx, heat and edema of the neck, tumors and trauma. This was the earliest record of jiaogulan’s use as a drug, although at this time it was confused with an analogous herb, Wulianmei.2 However, in the Qing dynasty (1644-1912 A.D.) Wu Qi-Jun in his book, Textual Investigation of Herbal Plants, cited the description and sketch from Zhu Xiao’s book and added more information about its medicinal usage. He also clearly separated jiaogulan from its confusion with Wulianmei.3 Jiaogulan’s traditional use has not been widespread in China. It was used as a folk herb in the local areas where it grew wild. Jiaogulan grows mostly in the mountainous regions of southern China, far from the central part of China, an area which has long been known as the “ancient domain of China”. This central area of China is where the classical system that we call traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) evolved. For this reason, jiaogulan is not included in the standard pharmacopoeia of the TCM system, and therefore has not had as widespread use as TCM herbs. However, an experienced TCM practitioner in China has analyzed jiaogulan and described its qualities in terms of traditional Chinese medicine, as “sweet, slightly bitter, neutral, warm, enhancing ‘Yin’ and supporting ‘Yang’”, and suggested that “it would be used to increase the resistance to infection and for anti-inflammation.”

Modern Discovery

Jiaogulan has been used by the people in the mountainous regions of Southern China as an energizing agent. They would take it as a tea before work to increase endurance and strength, and after work to relieve fatigue. It has also been taken for general health and has been recognized as a rejuvenating elixir. People also used it for treating common colds and other infectious diseases. Hence, the local Chinese people called jiaogulan, xiancao the “Immortality Herb,” and described it thus: “Like ginseng but better than ginseng.” Another story states that in a village near Fanjing Mountain in Guizhou province, the inhabitants would drink jiaogulan tea instead of the more common green tea and as a result many people there were living to 100 years of age. In 1972 the Research Group of Combined Traditional Chinese-Western Medicine of Qu Jing in Yunnan province did a study on the therapeutic effect of jiaogulan in 537 cases of chronic tracheo-bronchitis. This was the first report of medicinal usage of jiaogulan in modern Chinese medical literature.4 Jiaogulan has since been included in the more recent Dictionary of Chinese Materia Medica, where it describes the traditional uses for jiaogulan as a medicine. There it is indicated for anti-inflammation, detoxification, cough remedy, as an expectorant and as a chronic bronchitis remedy.5 Other traditional uses as a medicine have been anecdotally said to be for heart palpitation and for fatigue syndromes. In Japan, jiaogulan is called amachazuru.6 “Amacha” means “sweet” in Japanese, referring to the sweet component prevalent in the plant, “cha” means tea, and “zuru” means “vine”. The name perfectly describes the jiaogulan plant, which grows as a climbing vine and produces a sweet tea from its leaves. Amachazuru has been recognized in Japan since the late 1970s, and its description and uses are included in the Japanese Colour Encyclopedia of Medicinal Herbs. Among other things, it is stated there: “Because of the sweet taste of the leaves, it has been used as a mountain vegetable”7, similar to its use during the Ming Dynasty mentioned previously. Perhaps one of the more significant revelations about jiaogulan came about in Japan in the mid-1970s. Previously unknown as a medicinal herb, jiaogulan’s discovery in Japan came about like many of the world’s great discoveries—partially through the hard labor of a dedicated scientist, and partially by accident. It all started like this: In the 1960s there was a trend amongst some research scientists to find an alternative sweetener to sugar. Although saccharin was in use for many years, they were still pursuing other sugar alternatives. In Japan, the government had prohibited the use of sodium cyclamate, a recently discovered artificial sweetener. Japanese researcher Dr. Masahiro Nagai, presently a professor of Pharmacognosy at Hoshi Pharmaceutical University, recalls:

I had been in the National Institute for Health (NIH) in the U.S. for two years, from 1969 to 1971, when Dr. Osama Tanaka, a professor in the Dept. of Medicine of Hiroshima University, sent a request to me asking that I send a copy of a thesis on Stevia, which had been a subject of research in the NIH. He was interested in the plant for his study as a safe sweetening agent, which is not a sugar. When I went back to Japan, I decided to study the ingredients of another plant, called amachazuru, for possible use as a sugar alternative which, because of my background in Pharmacognosy, I knew to contain a sweet component.

Upon analyzing the sweet component, he stumbled upon the first discovery by the scientific world of chemical compounds contained in amachazuru that are identical to some of the compounds found in Panax ginseng, yet in a completely unrelated plant. He announced his findings at the twenty-third Meeting of the Japanese Society of Pharmacognosy in 1976, at Hiroshima.8 As it turned out, there was no further investigation of the herb for its sweetness. At that time, another Japanese scientist, Dr. Tsunematsu Takemoto, whose specialty was herb medicine research, was seeking natural treatments for cancer and other ailments arising from stress, as well as a sugar alternative. His interest of study was in a Chinese fruit, botanical name Momordica grosvenori, a melon of the Cucurbitaceae (cucumber or gourd) family, known not only for its sweetness, but also for its medicinal uses. His interest in this fruit had been piqued because of its reputation as the “precious fruit of longevity” and as a popular Chinese medicine.9 After returning from an unsuccessful trip to Kenya in search of the Momordica fruit, he learned of the research being done with amachazuru, an herb in the same family as the fruit he was studying. According to Professor Nagai, “One year after my presentation of the study at the Pharmacognosy Society (1977-78), Prof. Takemoto and his research group saw my reports on the study of amachazuru, and became very interested in studying it.” Since the compounds in amachazuru were found to be similar to those in Panax ginseng, and because it was growing wild in the fields and mountains, Dr. Takemoto thought that he had possibly found, in an apparently insignificant perennial weed, an inexpensive and readily available health panacea, right in his native country.10 Upon analyzing the amachazuru himself, Dr. Takemoto discovered that it contained four kinds of saponins exactly like those in Panax ginseng and seventeen other kinds of saponins very similar to those in Panax ginseng.11 Over the next ten years he and his group of researchers identified and named eighty-two saponins from amachazuru, whereas Panax ginseng has been found to have up to 28 saponins.12 Although these two plants are not related, they contain the same major components: saponins, a substance that has the unique quality of dissolving both in water and oil, and when mixed with water and shaken, will foam up. In Panax ginseng the saponins are called ginsenosides, in jiaogulan, or amachazuru, they are called gypenosides. (See Chapter 5 for a more detailed explanation of saponins) Dr. Takemoto was very excited about this newly discovered herb and he embarked on a mission to gradually uncover all of its potential. Throughout the 1980s, Dr. Takemoto, along with his staff, performed studies which isolated and identified eighty-two saponins, which they simply numbered 1-82.13 In 1984 they performed three experiments that began to demonstrate amachazuru’s many health-supporting and medicinal qualities. They saw that amachazuru increased the activity and strength of mice in a swimming test, showing the herb’s ability to improve endurance.14 Another study on mice showed the herb’s effectiveness as a neoplasm or tumor inhibitor,15 and a third showed the herb’s ability (adaptogenic) to prevent the unpleasant side effects of dexamethasone (hormone treatmen).16 These studies used mice as subjects; nevertheless having been tested on mammals, they were a significant marker for the herb’s possible effectiveness on humans. This was borne out by subsequent studies on humans. Jiaogulan would prove, in studies, to enhance endurance, inhibit tumors and help protect the cellular immunity in humans, as well as provide many other health-promoting benefits. Although the Japanese findings were significant, they were only the beginning of the extensive research that would be done on amachazuru. Unfortunately, in 1989 the driving force behind the ground-breaking research, Dr. Takemoto, passed away. As a result, the energy to pursue the research significantly slowed in Japan. However, interest in jiaogulan by Chinese researchers was growing rapidly, sparked by the results of a nationwide population census taken in the 1970s. The census revealed that, in small regions in the south central portion of China (some villages of Guangxi, Shicuan and other southern provinces), high rates of people per capita were living to 100 years of age. Cancer incidence was extremely low among the inhabitants as well. Scientists from the Chinese Academy of Medical Science in Beijing and other institutions began to research these regions and discovered that the people living there were regularly drinking a tea made from the herb jiaogulan.17 Because of the significant results of the census taken in China during the 1970’s, and then the boom of scientific interest in jiaogulan (amachazuru) in Japan during the 1980s, many research studies on jiaogulan were undertaken in China, and they have been continuing up to the present. Various pharmacological and therapeutic effects of jiaogulan were investigated and proven by tests on animals and human beings. Tonics and recipes made of jiaogulan have been developed and are being used in Chinese medical institutions. Surveys of the resources of jiaogulan in various portions of China have been made and cultivation techniques investigated. Nearly 300 scientific papers on jiaogulan or its saponins have been published in respected journals, and information about the herb has been formally collected and published in the modern Dictionary of Chinese Materia Medica.18 Jiaogulan has been recognized and accepted by ever-increasing numbers of Chinese people. From the time of the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C.), the Emperors of ancient China would send various envoys overseas to search for the “elixir of life”, but their efforts were always fruitless. Perhaps, the “elixir” has been found by descendants of the Emperors, growing in their own homeland!

End Notes

  1. Cheng, J.G., et al. “Investigation of the plant jiaogulan and its analogous herb, Wulianmei.” Zhong Cao Yao. Chinese. 1990. 21(9): 424.
  2. Li Shi-Zhen (Ming dynasty): Ben Chao Gangu Mu (Compendium of Materia
    Medica) Vol. 2. People’s Health Publisher. Chinese. 1985. p. 1326.
  3. Wu, Qi-Jun. (Qing dynasty). Zi Wu Ming Shi Tu Kau (Textual
    Investigation of Herbal Plants) Vol. 2, Shang Wu Publishing House.
    Chinese. 1957. p. 559.
  4. Qu, Jing and combined research group of Traditional Chinese/Western
    Medicine, Yunnan. “Study of the therapeutic effects of Chinese herb,
    jiaogulan in 537 cases of chronic tracheo-bronchitis.” Zhong Chao Yao
    Tong Xun (Bulletin of Chinese Herbs and Medicines). Chinese. 1972. (2): 24.
  5. Wu, Y.G., et al. (ed), Dictionary of Chinese Materia Medica Vol2,
    p.1088, Shanghai Science and Technological Publishing House, Shanghai,
    1st. ed. Chinese. 1998.
  6. Nagai, Masahiro, et al. “Two Glycosides of a Novel Dammarane Alcohol
    from Gynostemma pentaphyllum.” Chem. Pharm. Bull. 1981. 29(3): 779-83.
  7. Izawa, Kazuo. Color Encyclopedia of Medicinal Herbs. Jpn. 1998: 458.
  8. Nagai, Masahiro, et al. “Abstracts of Papers.” The 23rd Meeting of
    the Japanese Society of Pharmacognosy. Jpn. Nov. 1976: 37.
  9. Takemoto, Tsunematsu, et al. Health Before You Know It.-Amachazuru.
    Eng. Yutaka Nakano Shobo 1984.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Takemoto, Tsunematsu, et al. “Studies of the constituents of
    Gynostemma pentaphyllum Makino. I. Structures of Gypenosides I-XIV.”
    Yakugakuzasshi. Jpn. 1983. 103(2): 173-185.
  12. Bergner, Paul. The Healing Power of Ginseng. Prima Publishing. 1996. 107.
  13. Yoshikawa, K., et al. “Studies on the constituents of Cucurbitaceae
    plants. XVIII. On the Saponin constituents of Gynostemma pentaphyllum
    Makino (13)” Yakugaku Zasshi. Jpn. 1987. 107: 361-366.
  14. Arichi, Shigeru, et al. “Saponins of Gynostemma pentaphyllum as
    tonics.” Kokai Tokkyo Koho. Jpn. 1985. 60(105): 626.
  15. Arichi, Shigeru, et al. “Saponins of Gynostemma pentaphyllum as
    neoplasm inhibitors.” Kokai Tokkyo Koho. Jpn. 1985. 60(105): 627.
  16. Arichi, Shigeru, et al. “Prevention of glucocorticoid side effects
    by saponins of Gynostemma pentaphyllum.” Kokai Tokkyo Koho. Jpn. 1985.
    60(105): 625.
  17. Guangxi Ribao (Guangxi Daily Newspaper). Chinese. March 4, 1972.
    18. Wu, Y.G., et al. (ed), Dictionary of Chinese materia Medica Vol 2,
    p. 1088. Chinese. Shanghai Science and Technological Publishing House,
    Shanghai, 1st. ed. 1998.

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