The Chinese Herb Garden

This article was first published April, 2024

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Chinese medicine emerged over centuries of quiet observation of the seasonal cycles and the dynamic relationship between humans and our environment, the natural world. Observing the shift in Qi expression of a deciduous tree, from young spring growth, upward and outward, to fruition in summer, the receding and letting go of leaves in autumn, and the sap going deep into the roots of the tree for winter’s hibernation, mirrors our pulse qualities throughout the year as well as the natural activities of mammals generally.

photo of the chinese medicinal herb gou qi zi

Many of us are drawn to study and practice Chinese medicine in part due to the wisdom held by such quiet observation and an intuitive understanding that it is a more sustainable way of healing and being. However, when we are in school with hundreds of new herbs to learn: taste, temperatures, actions and combinations, we are often disconnected from the source of those herbs, many of which grow around us every day.

A wonderful book I discovered while in acupuncture school at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (ACTCM) was Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West: A Guide to Gardening, Herbal Wisdom, and Well-Being by Steven Foster and Yue Chongxi. This book opened my eyes to how many Chinese medicinal herbs were growing as ornamentals, shrubs, trees and sometimes weeds as I walked around Potrero Hill in San Francisco between classes. Over the last few hundred years, more plants have been introduced from China into Western gardens than from any other part of the world. Many of the Asian species grown as ornamentals, such as Balloon flower (桔梗 jié gěng), Forsythia (l連翹 lián qiáo), Gardenia (梔子 zhī zǐ), Peony (白芍 bái sháo, 赤芍 chì sháo, 牡丹皮 mǔ dān pí), and Chrysanthemum (菊花 jú huā) are commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine. Trees used medicinally that I observe in gardens and beautifying city streets include Gingko (白果 bái guǒ) and Mimosa or Silktree (the source of both 合歡皮 hé huān pí and 合歡花 hé huān huā) as well as the Cypress-family shrub Platycladus orientalis, which is the source of 柏子仁 băi zĭ rén and of 侧柏叶 cè băi yè.

photo of the chinese medicinal herb jie geng

Sadly, these two monumental contributors to the field of East Asian medicine, person and place, are both no longer. Botanical photographer, herbalist and scientist Steven Foster passed away in 2022 and ACTCM closed its doors last year in 2023. (You can read a tribute to Steven Foster here). At its height, there were over 140 different medicinals growing at ACTCM. You can see a glimpse of the work that went into its creation and upkeep with the list and map from 2010. Many of the plants that had been growing in the ACTCM herb garden were dispersed to the home gardens of alumni and former patients, including 白芨 bái jí, 桔梗 jié gĕng , 草豆蔻 căo dòu kòu, and 牡丹皮 mŭ dān pí. Of course, the larger trees (such as the mulberry and loquat) remain, as well as the more tenacious plants such as the 何首烏 hé shǒu wū growing out front on Arkansas street.

During my years studying at ACTCM, I also discovered the wonder that is the Chinese Medicinal Herb Garden at the UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley, and became friends with Elaine Sedlack, the now recently retired former head gardener of the expansive Asian section of the UC Botanical Garden. It was during Elaine’s earlier years at the Botanical Garden in the mid-1980’s that the Chinese Medicinal Herb section was created. We reconnected recently to talk about how this garden came to be, a cooperative effort of ACTCM in San Francisco; the Guangzhou College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (now the Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine) in Guangzhou, China; and the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley.

photo of the chinese medicinal herb wu mei

Elaine told me “Our curator, Dr. James Affolter, was approached by the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine to see whether our garden would be interested in having a display of traditional Chinese herbs for their students to be able to come and see the actual plants that the medicine came from. They offered him a trip to China to visit different hospitals and gardens and the next year they arranged to have Professor Xu Hong Hua of Guangzhou College come stay in Berkeley for six months. When he came, we had designated just one bed. He just looked at that and said, “It's not big enough”. We got the go ahead to clear the other two beds, so there were three in total that are there now. The other collection of Alstroemeria was pretty, but this project had so much more cultural significance.”

Fortunately, Elaine had been studying Mandarin Chinese. While Professor Xu spoke only Cantonese, he understood her Mandarin and they managed to communicate well enough throughout his stay to create the garden together. She picked him up every day and drove him back and forth to the Botanical Garden. During that time, he researched and designed the garden. His specialty was anti-cancer plants.

I asked Elaine where all the plants came from. There are over 100 different species of commonly used Asian medicinal herbs. She told me that Professor Xu brought about 30 plants with him. He helped them identify another 50 plants in the Asian area that were medicinal that they propagated. There was this wonderful program instituted whereby different Botanic Gardens would mail lists of their wild-collected seeds to other institutions around the world. and then each garden exchanged seeds. There was no cost involved. The Berkeley Botanical Garden would collect native California species every other year and make a seed list to offer wild documented seed from California. Elaine told me that Shanghai had a lot of great variety of seed before they closed that garden.

photo of the chinese medicinal herb ying su ke

One of my favorite stories from Elaine about her time with Professor Xu Hong Hua was when she was driving him home. As they passed Hearst and Oxford streets in Berkeley, he asked her to stop the car. He had seen Plantain (車前子 chē qián zi) growing in a crack in the sidewalk. They pulled over, got a little scrap of newspaper and as people were walking by, they sat scraping and collecting the seeds.

photo of the chinese medicinal herb shan zha

The Chinese medicine herb garden at UC Berkeley Botanical gardens continues to be well-cared for. I visited last January to see flashy red quince and plum blossoms in bloom. Most of the other plants are dormant in the winter. Ideal times to visit are from spring through autumn to witness the flowering and fruiting of the many herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees. A few of my favorite surprises have been seeing 五味子 wŭ wèi zĭ and 淫羊藿 yīn yáng huò in bloom, as well as seeing fresh 山楂 shān zhā and 山茱萸 shān zhū yú fruits on trees. The garden is only a demonstration garden – it is not harvested for use. The Chinese medicinal section is easy to locate with the beautiful 2,500-pound stone that was donated by the Chinese Ministry of Health and installed just before the gardens’ dedication in 1987.

California residents can receive discounted entry if they schedule ahead with their public library card number through the Discover & Go program, which offers free and low-cost passes for museums, science centers, zoos, theatres, and other cultural destinations. You can also visit the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden website for hours and directions.

Growing a Chinese Herb Garden at Home

There are many reasons to personally grow a Chinese herb garden, even if it is only a small one. Here are a few:

  1. Get to know the herbs we use clinically a little more - whole, beautiful, and alive.
  2. For the simple joy of witnessing natural cycles and spending regular time outdoors, a place where many of us experience being part of something much larger than our individual selves, a feeling of connection and a recognition of the interdependent web of which we are a part.
  3. The garden is a model of health: cyclical alternations of rest and activity, of receiving nourishment and of letting go. Connect with the wisdom gleaned by the ancients of quiet observation, whether doing the simple task of weeding or watering, doing qigong or Taiji, or just simply relaxing after a day in the clinic.

If you don’t have yard space, many herbs can be grown in pots successfully. Start with just a few plants. Check out some of the seed, plant and learning resources below, including the Lilium Initiative, who hosts an online bi-monthly Growers Support Group for anyone growing Asian medicinal herbs. Recent meetings have included farmers, growers, practitioners and medicine makers from California, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Wisconsin, New York, South Carolina, Canada and Switzerland.

Medicinal herb gardens are treasures, and as we see with the closure of ACTCM, they can be impermanent. Enjoy your time in the garden, whether your own or a Botanical Garden, and keep your eyes out for some of those medicinals that might surprise you at garden nurseries and front yards. I always feel such gratitude to see the transformation of blossoms into fruits of some of our most beloved medicinals.

Happy Earth Day!

About the Author

Dr Jasmine Oberste DACM

Dr. Jasmine Rose Oberste is a Doctor of Chinese Medicine licensed in California, Hawaii and the UK after completing her Master's in 2004 and more recently her Doctorate, both at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco. In addition to her clinical practice, she is an award-winning permaculture designer with a focus on community-based restorative agriculture. Dr. Oberste teaches Chinese herbal medicine, Shi Liao (Chinese diet therapy), and permaculture. She recently opened an online store of her own Chinese herbal products and pottery at


Chinese Medicinal Seeds & Plants

For any of the following companies, put “Chinese” in their search box to pull up most of the Chinese medicinal herbs available.

Online Learning

  • Lilium Initiative (student discount available): Lilium Initiative offers monthly educational talks free to members (and available to non-members by donation) about growing, harvesting, processing and using Asian medicinals as well as hosting the bi-monthly Growers Support Group

Recommended Reading

  • Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West by Steven Foster and Yue Chongxi, 1992.
  • Growing Chinese Herbs: Daodi Practices for Growing and Processing Chinese Herbs, edited by Guo Lan-ping, Huang Lu-Qi, Xie Xiao-Liang, and Zhang Yan. Translated and annotated by Thomas Avery Garran, 2019.
  • The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm: A Cultivator's Guide to Small-Scale Organic Herb Production, Peg Schafer, 2011.

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