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Botanical name: Codonopsis pilosula
Common name: Codonopsis root, Bonnet bellflower
Literal name translation: group root
Part used in Chinese medicine: root
Major Chinese medicine actions:
Tonifies middle burner, Tonifies Spleen and Lung qi
Historically, Dang Shen was not mentioned in Chinese medicine literature until the Qing dynasty (1644-1908 A.D.). Ethnic groups in various regions of China sought out local plants that supported general health and vitality, hence there are over 100 different kinds of thick, fleshy roots and rhizomes bearing the term “shen”, including Tai Zi Shen, Ren Shen, Dan Shen, Bei Sha Shen, and Nan Sha Shen. When ginseng-producing regions became imperial property during the Qing dynasty, the government controlled the harvesting and distribution of Ren Shen (ginseng) and it became expensive and difficult to procure. At that time, Dang Shen emerged as an effective cheaper substitute, hence sometimes called “poor man’s ginseng”.
Codonopsis roots are grown in various regions of China and are known by slightly different names, though in Chinese medicine they are all generally grouped together as “Dang Shen”. Codonopsis from northeastern China is sometimes called Dong-dang, from Shaanxi and Gansu it is called Xi-dang, from the Tai-hang Shan area of Shanxi it is called Lu-dang, from Sichuan it is called Chuan-dang, and from Fang-xian western Hubei it is called Fang-dang.
A traditional broth taken to increase vitality is cooked in many Chinese households, especially for the elderly and those recovering from illness. The basic recipe is as follows: 1/2 ounce Dang Shen (codonopsis) 1/2 cup Shan Yao (dried sliced Chinese yam), 1/2 cup Gou Qi Zi (lycii berries), 1/2 cup Da Zao (dried red jujube), 1/2 ounce Huang Qi (astragalus), and 1 1/2 pounds spareribs (cut into 2 inch pieces). The dried herb material is washed, ingredients are combined, adding 4 quarts of water with 1 teaspoon salt. This is simmered for about 3 hours. 1-2 tablespoons of vinegar may be added to encourage the marrow of the bones to dissolve into the broth as well.
Growing and Propagation
A climbing, twining vine growing to 6 feet tall, codonopsis blooms from June to August with pretty bell shaped flowers that are tinged with blue, purple, yellow and white. The plant does well if grown on a trellis or on a high bank where it can hang over the side. It prefers well-drained fertile soil rich in organic matter, and in a location with part shade, though it may be planted in full sun if the soil remains moist during the growing season. It does best in a cool climate and is cold hardy when dormant, but the young growth in spring is susceptible to damage by frost therefore plants should be sheltered. It is hardy to USDA zone 6.
Seeds are best started indoors or in a greenhouse in autumn, or in spring before the last frost. They can be transplanted outside into the garden when temperatures warm. The plant resents root disturbance and should be planted out into its permanent position as soon as possible. Young shoots in spring are particularly susceptible to slugs, though older growth may also be eaten, and the plant stems are delicate so care must be taken not to damage plants when transplanting
Harvesting and Preparation
Roots are harvested from plants that are 3 years or older. After digging roots in September or October, they are cleaned and dried in the sun until half dry. The roots are then rubbed by hand on a board in order to evenly distribute the water and to press the root fibers together. Plants are dried further, pressed again, and then dried completely.
When assessing the quality of fresh Dang Shen roots, a good quality root is soft and fleshy and very fragrant. Upon chewing the root, it should dissolve in the mouth leaving only a few fibers. Dried roots should taste sweet and be thick and pliable with a thin outer bark, and a cross section that has a chrysanthemum pattern. Thin, light roots are considered inferior. Some believe the most superior quality Dang Shen is the wild-crafted codonopsis root that has been steamed with rice wine. This processing turns the skin yellow and the center black.