Gou Qi Zi
Botanical name: Lycium barbarum
Common name: Lycium fruit, Chinese wolfberry, Matrimony vine
Family: Solanaceae, nightshade fmily
Part used in Chinese medicine: fruit
Major Chinese medicine actions:
Nourishes Kidney and Lung yin, nourishes Liver blood, benefits essence
Photo Credits: (top to bottom)
Photo 1: Lycium barbarum; 12/2006; author Paul144; permission under GFDL
Photo 2: Lycium barbarum; 12/2006; author Paul144; permission under GFDL
Photo 3: Lycium barbarum; 09/2004; author TeunSpaans; permission under GFDL
Gou Qi Zi, or Wolfberry, is the fruit produced from 2 very closely related species, Lycium chinense and Lycium barbarum. Lycium chinense is grown in the south of China and tends to be a somewhat shorter shrub, while Lycium barbarum is grown in the north, and s slightly taller. They are both members of the Solanaceae family, which is the nightshade group and includes hundreds of food plants such as potato, tomato, eggplant, and peppers, as well as poisonous plants such as belladona.
In the West, Gou Qi Zi has recently become a popular “health food”. Called Goji berries, they are commonly marketed as a “superfood” and sold at highly inflated prices. Though an important herb in Chinese medicine, it is not generally recommended for all. When used as a daily blood tonic tea only a small amount of berries are used. The berries are sweet with a licorice-like flavor and are traditionally added to soups made with chicken, duck or pork.
In China, lycium berries are commonly grown on large plantations, often government owned. By removing the suckers on the largest stem of an individual plant, it is gradually pruned over time to the form of a small tree. The berries grow on arching branches, and like coffee beans, do not all mature at the same time, therefore must be hand-picked individually.
Growing and Propagation
The plant can be grown as a shrub or vine, or a tree shaped shrub as described above. It can grow 6 to 8 feet tall if not pruned, and has lavender to pink flowers that bloom April to June. It does best in a cool climate with full sun and sandy soil that is moist but well drained. The plant has been found in altitudes up to 13,000 feet and is hardy to -10 degrees F, growing in USDA zones 6 to 9.
Propagation is by seed or cuttings. Cuttings should be taken from the previous years growth, in the spring before the flower buds fully develop. They are cut into 6-inch lengths and planted in a peat bed at an angle. Keeping them warm and protected until new roots are established, the plants can then be transplanted to a more permanent location. Beginning in the second year of growth when plants are 4 feet high, they can be pruned on top to encourage branching.
Harvesting and Preparation
Lycium berries are harvested when ripe in late summer or early fall. In China there is an annual festival held in August in Ningxia, which is an important center of cultivation for the region. The oblong, red berries are very tender and must be picked carefully or shaken from the vine into trays to avoid spoiling. The fruits are preserved by slowly drying them in them in a shaded, well-ventilated area, or by mechanical dehydration employing a progressively increasing series of heat exposure over 48 hours. The fruits are not turned during the drying process as this may cause them to bruise, turning them black.
Western consumers should be careful to choose berries that are dark red, but not unnaturally bright red in color. Lycium berries for export are often treated with sulfites in order to preserve their color as they can be damaged during long months of travel. The sulfites cause them to turn a bright fresh red.
The root bark of the same Lycium plants (Di Gu Pi) is also used in Chinese medicine. It is harvested in spring or autumn.