|Sue Szwed illustration|
By Deb Soule
The genus Schisandra (also known as Schizandra) includes 25 species of beautiful, deciduous vines belonging to the Schisandraceae family (Magnolia vine family). All but one are native to the forests of Northern China, the Russian Far East, Korea and Japan. Schisandra coccinea, also known as southern magnolia vine, is a rare species found growing in undisturbed stream beds in North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Arkansas and Louisiana. (See Herbal Emissaries, pg 146-147.)
Schisandra vines prefer some shade and well-drained, deeply cultivated sandy soil with plenty of moisture, rich compost and cold temperatures. Maine and northern New England are good climates for establishing these perennial vines, which are not fussy and appear to be free of diseases and insect pests. Like most vines they need to grow on an arbor, wall or fence. They usually begin bearing fruit after the second or third year.
Schisandra chinensis, the species most commonly listed in medicinal herb books, has alternate, deciduous leaves that are approximately 2-1/2 inches long and 1 to 1-1/2 inches wide. In the spring the small, lightly fragrant, snow white flowers grow in clusters. Female and male flowers grow on separate plants and both are needed to produce fruits. These flowers give way to beautiful bunches of red berries, which hang like grapes in the fall and are highly valued for their medicinal properties.
Propagate Schisandra by seed, cuttings or layering. The seeds can be planted in prepared seedbeds 1/4-inch deep in the fall soon after they ripen or indoors in March. Dry seeds need to be soaked overnight. In Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West, Steven Foster and Yue Chongxi say that in China an acid scarification process is sometimes used, because the seeds have such a hard coat. One Green World in Moralla, Oregon (1-877-651-4028, toll-free), is a mail-order nursery that offers Schisandra vines and many other unusual fruits and ornamentals from around the world, most of which are hardy in northern climates.
The Chinese name for Schisandra is wu-wei-zi, which means “five taste-fruits” or “five flavor herb” and alludes to the fact that the fruits contain all five flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, pungent and salty. Sucking on a dry fruit is an interesting experience because of its many flavors. The fruits are most commonly used as a tea, syrup, in a tincture or quality capsule. (Read labels to ensure that the company is committed to using quality herbs.)
Schisandra is being used by western herbalists as an overall tonic and restorative herb for various deficient and weak conditions in the body. It can be used in combination with other herbs for chronic stress, chronic fatigue, insomnia, poor memory, depression, night sweats and involuntary sweating. The berries help regulate blood sugar levels and improve overall stamina and endurance. They are helpful when used with milk thistle seed and turmeric root for preventing or treating liver damage caused by industrial solvents, pharmaceutical medications, recreational drugs, alcohol, and some viruses, including hepatitis B.
Various respiratory weaknesses can be treated with Schisandra. Its astringent and tonifying properties are beneficial for fighting chronic coughs, dry coughs, allergic asthma with wheezing and dyspnea (difficult and labored breathing). I often add the berries into a formula for someone who is experiencing grief. The emotion of grief in Traditional Chinese Medicine is associated with the lungs, and Schisandra supports a person who is grieving by preventing the loss of energy through the lungs.
Schisandra’s astringent nature and ability to nourish the kidneys may be helpful for people who urinate frequently, have early morning diarrhea, leukorrhea or night sweats. If these conditions are chronic, a visit to a Chinese practitioner may help resolve the root causes of these symptoms.
Some clinical studies done by Chinese researchers have shown that the berries improve brain efficiency while at the same time calming the central nervous system. When taken over several weeks as an adaptogen (a substance that helps the body adapt to stresses), Schisandra helps improve energy levels, reduces tiredness, and improves the immune system’s response, making it a valuable tonic for many people, particularly those coming into their 40s, 50s and sixties.
Schisandra berries are safe for long term use and have very low toxicity. They need to be avoided during acute fevers and flus, and during any acute condition with excess heat, such as skin rashes. The berries are not recommended for women during pregnancy, as they may stimulate uterine contractions, but seem to be safe for nursing women. Schisandra is contraindicated for people or animals with epilepsy and must be used carefully by anyone who is on a Phenobarbital or barbital, as the berries may potentiate the action of those drugs. (Page 298, Herbal Therapy and Supplements)
I believe that gardeners or farmers in Maine and northern New England who want to grow a medicinal herb for market would find this vine easy and fun to grow. Hardly any sources of organically grown Schisandra berries exist in the United States. The fruits are traditionally dried in the sun, but a plastic hoop house with good ventilation probably would dry the berries quickly.
To make your own tincture or syrup, you can order organic berries from Pacific Botanicals, 4350 Fish Hatchery Rd., Grants Pass, OR 97527. The predominately sour taste and astringent nature of Schisandra berries is a flavor I crave in the fall and winter. I have seen that a dropperful of the tincture combined with St Johnswort tincture and taken daily can help people who normally experience mild depression and tiredness during the fall and winter. There is something strengthening and hopeful about the deep red color of the berries. Berries, such as Schisandra, hold much good medicine and the promise of new life, as they contain the seeds for future generations.
Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West, Steven Foster and Yue Chongxi, Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vt., 1992
Herbal Therapy and Supplements, Merrily A. Kuhn and David Winston, Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, Philadelphia, Penn., 2001
About the author: Deb is the founder of Avena Botanicals and the Avena Institute in West Rockport, Maine. She also wrote The Roots of Healing – A Woman’s Book of Herbs. You can visit her website at www.avenaherbs.com. This article is for information only; please consult a health care practitioner if you have a serious medical problem.