The oriental “plant of immortality” that fascinated Westerners
More than 100 years ago, the British royal family and aristocrats were obsessed with a thousands of years old “herb of immortality”, the dendrobium plant. They used it as a symbol of prestige, not only representing wealth, but also power, status, and connections etc.
In an era of frequent wars, many “plant hunters” were willing to face natural disasters, diseases, shipwrecks, wild beasts, murder, and other dangers, and went to foreign countries to search for this “herb of immortality”. The surviving “plant hunters” brought the dendrobium plant they found back to the Western world, earning enough fortune to live comfortably for the rest of their lives.
This “Dendrobium orchid” hype originated from the Queen of England. In the 22nd year of Guangxu (1896), when the Qing Dynasty was facing many domestic and external troubles, Li Hongzhang, a 74-year-old senior official for foreign affairs, was sent to the United Kingdom. Before leaving, he started to cough and wheeze and to suffer from dizziness, insomnia, and vertigo. Empress dowager Cixi therefore gave him the royal medicine Dendrobium and other medicinal herbs which were soaked in water and decocted. Li Hongzhang took this medicine throughout his journey to the United Kingdom and praised it greatly.
Upon arriving in the United Kingdom, Li Hongzhang presented Dendrobium as a national gift to Queen Victoria. After taking it, the Queen felt marvelous and thanked Empress Dowager Cixi for this gift. Following this incident, Dendrobium became a luxury product for the British royal family. Within a short time, the dendrobium frenzy swept across the upper class and endured for more than a hundred years. Aficionados even hired specialized “plant hunters” which risked their lives to travel across the oceans in search for the rare dendrobium orchid with the goal of expanding their collections.
Until the 1960s and 1970s, one kilogram of dendrobium could still be exchanged for 12 tons of wheat in Europe.
Where does the Oriental “plant of immortality” come from?
In Yunnan, on the southwestern border of China, lie the Hengduan Mountains, which are covered by clouds and fog. Here one can find many inaccessible alpine forests, which are densely covered with vines, and towering old trees, with old trees of hundreds or even thousands of years growing everywhere. On these cliffs and among the towering trees, one easily may find large numbers of dendrobium orchids. In this high-altitude region, the sunlight is strong, and the temperature difference between day and night is huge. There are also almost no traces of artificial pollution in these mountains.
Dendrobium, which was almost plundered to extinction by Western “plant hunters” a hundred years ago, is now once more widely bred under the diligent hands of the Chinese people. Modern people don’t have to cross mountains and ridges anymore to pick them – villagers of the Naxi minority villages transplant the precious Dendrobium plant by hand onto the big trees which are growing in front of every Naxi household to later on use it in teas and soups.
Growing on an average altitude of about 1600 meters
The “immortality herb” that is – according to legend – able to save the dying
The treasure left by Chinese ancestors
“This is the treasure left by our Chinese ancestors.” said Zhou Yousheng, the head of the Dendrobium base. It has many nicknames: “life-saving immortality herb”, “resurrection herb”, or “first of the nine immortality herbs.”
“There is this old story that there was a dying old man, whose children lived in another place and hadn’t yet come back. In order to prolong his life, he would been given a boiled decoction from dendrobium from the mountain cliffs or from the big trees of the virgin forest. He drank this dendrobium water, and this preserved his life until his son came back. After he had seen the face of his son, he died. Therefore, the plant is also called “resurrection herb”.
Local ethnic minorities often use wild dendrobium to cook soups, boil them in water, or infuse them as tea. It can nourish the Yin, clear heat, and improve the immune system. Girls of the Naxi ethnic minority also wash and grind dendrobium, and then apply it to their faces as skin care remedy. It can moisturize the skin and prevent the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Recorded in ancient books more than 2000 years ago
The thousand-year old “immortality herb” dendrobium
As a traditional and precious plant in China, Dendrobium was first mentioned in the classic “Shen Nong’s Materia Medica” which dates back more than 2000 years. In this classic, 365 kinds of medicinal materials are recorded, which are divided into three categories: superior, middle, and inferior materials. Dendrobium is classified as a superior medicinal material. The classic “Dao Zang” of the Tang Dynasty lists nine “Chinese immortality herbs”: Dendrobium, Saussurea involucrata, Panax ginseng, Polygonum multiflorum, Poria cocos, Ganoderma lucidum, Cordyceps sinensis, Pteria martensii, and Cistanche deserticola. Dendrobium ranks first among these “Nine Immortality Herbs”. Furthermore, it is also called “soft gold”, “herb gold” and “sacred medicine of the traditional Chinese medicine”. Since the Tang and Song Dynasties, Dendrobium has been listed as a tribute, and it was the first choice of emperors, generals, officials, and other nobles when it came to prolonging their lives. Emperor Qianlong, who was the emperor in power for the longest time and also the one who lived longest in Chinese history, only loved Dendrobium. In 1970, when Premier Zhou Enlai visited the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, who was ill back then, he also gave Dendrobium as a gift and sent his sincere greetings.
In terms of its utilization value and medicinal efficacy, Dendrobium is considered as a “valuable and exclusive herb” in traditional Chinese botany. And the development of modern science and technology has made the skin care values of Dendrobium even more prominent.
Research on Dendrobium
“In the medicinal classic Dao Zang, it is listed as the “first of the Chinese immortality herbs”. It can regulate your endocrine function, including the secretion of glands. In terms of the chemical composition of Dendrobium, it contains polysaccharides, which are used in skin care products mainly to retain water. It also contains phenolic components, which have good anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. They also have whitening effects and have certain effectiveness in the inhibition of tyrosine kinase (antioxidant).”
Dr. Hu Jiangmiao
Dendrobium Research Expert at the Dr Plant R&D Center, Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences
Dr Plant and more than 20 interdisciplinary botanists have conducted in-depth research on the alpine plant Dendrobium officinale and found that Dendrobium is rich in Dendrobium polysaccharides, Dendrobium alkaloids, Dendrobium polyphenols, amino acids, flavonoids, VC and other effective skin care ingredients, which can moisturize the skin, effectively scavenge free radicals, and provide sufficient nutrition for the skin while also having anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Scientist, R&D Center of Dr Plant, Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences
Among them, Dr. Yang Lixin from the Dr Plant R&D Center of the Kunming Institute Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, has studied 8 ancient classic Chinese medical books, and 243 skin care plants, as well as tested the activity of 13 skin care plants of the Naxi ethnic minority. She found out that the Dendrobium plant which is growing on high mountains has purer and more nutrients than ordinary Dendrobium. Also, it showed outstanding performance in terms of its DPPH free radical scavenging rate, tyrosinase inhibitory activity rate, and its rate of promoting collagen secretion.
In 2016, the Dr Plant Research and Development team published a patent (patent number: CN106692692A) – “A Dendrobium officinale extract and its preparation method”. This is a Dendrobium extraction patent with a simpler process and a higher extraction efficiency, which can retain the active ingredients of the original plant to their maximum extent without using any organic solvents, ensuring that the extract is safe and environmentally friendly, without toxic side effects. Its safety rate and extraction rate are unique in all of China.
Pei Shengji, botanist
Founder of Chinese Ethnobotany
Chief Scientist of Dr Plant
In 2017, Dr Plant launched the first full range of alpine plant skin care products – the Dendrobium Activating Aging-Resistance Rejuvenating Series, leading the domestic alpine plant skin care field.
Dr Plant Dendrobium Activating Aging-Resistance Rejuvenating Series
Disclaimer: The views, suggestions, and opinions expressed here are the sole responsibility of the experts. No Daily Pune journalist was involved in the writing and production of this article.