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Interview 3:10 - 34:39 Play 3:10 - More
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Jan Salick, Wayne Law, Norbu  







Medicinal plant discussion with Elizabeth Arnold.  

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NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
13 Oct 2005

  • China
  • Deqin
  • 28.48735   98.91428
    Recording TimeCode
  • 46:51 - 49:00
  • Stereo
    Sampling Rate
  • 48kHz
    Bit Depth
  • 24-bit
  • Sennheiser MKH 40
  • Sennheiser MKH 30
    Equipment Note
  • Decoded MS stereo. Sonosax pre-amps used.

Reporter: Elizabeth Arnold
Engineer: Leo delAguila
Interviews with: Jan Salick, Wayne Law [sp?], and shopkeeper in medicine shop.
Translator: Norbu
Logged By: ESN

[BG: street sounds, music, cars, voices.]
EA: This is DAT number 7, we are still in Dequin and we are on the main street and we are walking up to a medicinal market.

[Street sounds, music cars, voices, honking.]

Street sounds fainter.
Just voices.

Norbu: she doesn't know much, normally her husband stays here.
JS: is he available?
Norbu: he's in -?

Speaking in Chinese.
Norbu: she knows some

EA: so where are we first of all?
JS: well this is a traditional medicine shop in atunza. Or dequin. And this is a place where I've seen, repeatedly seen, people come in from the countryside and sell goods to the shop and they in turn then sell to the public. So you see all the jars and boxes and and displays of of different medicinal plants here.
EA: there's all kinds of stuff. Some pretty crazy looking stuff.
JS: we'll look at some of them and have them explain what they're used for. The most prominently displayed is the is the um snow lotus. You can see huge bags of it hanging on the walls and so on. So we are well aware of the impact on the snow lotus population because of this sort of collecting.
EA: are these places pretty popular?
N: for tourists yes.
EA: for tourists?!
N: yes, for tourists and for locals as well. Especially the medicine for locals the jewelries
JS: besides the medicines here there's also tourists items around so that there it's kind of a dual purpose shop, both for medicine and for tourist trade.
EA: wayne how does it feel when you see all these giant bags of snow lotus.
WL: It kind of hurts
It's kind of I guess kind of sad. Yeah it's just kind of amazing to see so much -- Such a high quantity of snow lotus that's actually harvested. But you know we're still able to to to to identify that there's a lot of harvest going on from these collections
EA: not to make too fine a point...but you guys aren't telling the locals to stop harvesting. There's a big difference between the traditional and commercial harvest...
JS: right well this is kind of an intermediate step. And until we get our final results to know exactly how much can be harvested we cant say whether we will be discouraging this kind of trade or not. Um this is kind of the middle level. The local level is when the Tibetan doctors go out to harvest to use in their medicine, and we're quite convinced at this point that that can be sustained and it's not really a problem. Whether this much harvest can be sustained or not, we don't have the answer, yet do we?
WL: No we don't have the answer for that yet. But um well this kind of trade is more for the local, this town and so it's not a huge commercial value at this point. We're unsure on how that's going to effect the populations.
JS: but what we're pretty. What we're convinced about is that the trade for the larger Chinese market The international market that is huge and that can not be sustained.
EA: where would we see something like that -in the big cities? Where do you see evidence of the commercial harvest?
WL: oh you can see that in the big cities you can see it in some of the herbal shops of the big cities. And like in the states you can find it on the internet. Now that you can see the snow lotus is being sold on the internet at some of these herbal webpages and that kind of stuff.
EA: snow lotus dot com or something?
WL: you could look up herbal remedies dot com or something like that and you'd be able to find some type of herbal medicines.
JS: and try some of the herbal shops in san Francisco and los angeles. See if snow lotus isn't there. You'll see it in the airport too. That's kind of an indication as well.
EA: and all this stuff, not just snow lotus.
JS: no no, there's many many products. It's just that snow lotus is¿the population was on the verge to begin with and it has such a weird population biology that it's much more quickly threatened than some of the others. There are a number of other plants that are also threatened.
EA: Norbu, I might come here and buy snow lotus... what are they buying?
N: Chinese caterpillar fungus
EA: And what do people use that for?
N: uh this is you know goes with medicine for cancer. That's what I heard.
JS: it also gives you strength right
WL: yeah it's supposed to give you energy.
JS: they'll often cook it with chicken. It's kind of a chicken broth, chicken soup and caterpillar fungus.
JS: and are these people Tibetan?
N: yeah tibetan
EA: and are they selling or buying?
N: selling. She's selling to this Tibetan guy.
EA: so they're buying caterpillar fungus. But someone else might come in and sell it to the store. That's caterpillar fungus. I don't get how that works, it looks like dried worms.
JS: well that's exactly. This is the caterpillar part here and the caterpillars attacked by a fungus and this is the fruiting body of the fungus. When they collect it, what they see sticking out of the ground is this little bit...
EA: The little it's like a little worm with a tail, and the tail part that's coming out of the worm is the fungus.
N: the tail is from the head.
EA: anyway, what is the potent part of that?
JS: the whole thing, you eat the whole thing
N: but the body is better.
EA; and we're thinking strength here, cancer...
JS: it's also for men right.
N: yeah, locals believe that it's good for men
EA: good for men. We'll leave it at that [laughter]
EA: can you tell me anything about the other things that are in bags around us?
JS: we'll talk to the shopkeeper...
EA: so this for you is sort of a hub for ethnobotany, this is where it's at.
JS: well when I first started here, my very first year what I did was go around to all the shops, and all the hospitals and so on and just interview them and find all the products that they were selling and what they were using and what they were using it for that was an initial study that I did um then then we kind of took it beyond that into the field to decide what plants to work on.
EA; so you start here and say what's on the shelves, what's in the hospitals.
JS: what's being used, what are the important Tibetan medicinal plants that are in commerce and in use. And we also went to Lhasa to see what they were using, uh we went to different markets in the area to see what was going on. And one of the results of that study was that we found there are very distinct traditions in Tibetan medicine. Tibetan medicine is not just one thing. There's the formal Lhasa tradition, and that's even found here locally in the hospital the Tibetan hospital they follow the Tibetan tradition. And then there's also the local doctors, and they practice a very distinct nonetheless Tibetan medicine but much more locally oriented towards the local population of plants. And then the third distinct tradition is the market tradition. I mean there's overlap among all of these but but what is sold in the markets is very different than what is used day to day in Tibetan medicine.
JS: So this over abundance of snow lotus and caterpillar fungus and so on is distinct to the markets and those are the ones that we're most concerned about as far as their populations being sustainable.
EA: I was just going to say, to what end are you doing this?
JS: right exactly well we were trying. [loud truck.]
JS: first of all we were trying to find out what plants were important that was an end in itself. But then we were trying to find out what plants might be threatened by this commercial harvesting.
EA: forgive me but, who are we to come in and tell them what to be doing with their plants?
JS: well, we're nobody, and we can't. I mean, I cannot tell them what to do. Um I can make recommendations to organiz- to Chinese organizations that are in charge, I can provide data, I can't tell anybody what to do. I can talk to people, influence people, but you have to work within local social structures and political structures.
N: it's better to work with living Buddha living Buddha is very influential.
JS: the Tibetan doctors and the living Buddhas the cultural traditions within this area are very influential to local people so that we're trying to build partnerships with these doctors and living buddhas as norbu says.
EA: aren't we in America some of the market for this commercial harvesting?
JS: we are and I think that's another piece of information that we've got to get out there I think that people have to be aware in their enthusiasm for Tibetan medicine which I have nothing against, I think it's wonderful. Nonetheless that we can be doing damage at the same time we're embracing it so enthusiastically.
EA: who's the biggest market, do you know? China?
JS: well yes, china itself is an enormous market, so you always have to remember that when you're working in china that we always think of international markets as the important thing but a Chinese market is probably more influential than any any thing else. Um as far as beyond that, a lot of these products um go through germany. Germany is a clearinghouse for medicinals throughout the world. So there's a large international network as well
EA: again, forgive me for the question, as an ethnobotanist, do you ever wonder who you to tell people what to do? That they're overharvesting?
JS: well I think my role is just to provide the data, to provide the information. I'm a scientist you know I don't make decisions, I can't I can influence people to a certain extent, but as a scientist, my job is to provide the data and that's what we're working on.
EA: and say, I have these skills I can bring them to the party, I can show you what's happening and then you can make the decision.
JS: exactly, exactly. I can make recommendations, but beyond that, it's not my role.
EA: Why'd you get into this field?
JS: um I started out in ecology and was interested in how plants and animals interacted with one another and uh then ian prance [very loud talking in bg] the former director of new york botanical garden and royal botanical garden took me aside and said couldn't you look at people plant interactions, he said don't you think those might be important And I thought about it for about two seconds, and said, great! And I've been doing it ever since. You know people influence plant populations more if not the same as other animals do. So our influence on plants is tremendous and it's something that's often not acknowledged.
EA: and here we are in a perfect example of people and plants.
JS: exactly. No this is where it happens. You can see people buying and people selling here. And uh all these wild plants that are part of peoples lives
EA: do you think that people will always turn to plants for medicine?
N: yeah. Very important for people, because this as a I said income from caterpillar fungus, snow lotus, those are the main income. [loud cars in BG] So now the government is also doing the same job to adjust the industry or structure so the to reduce the pressure of this medicinal plants. They're encouraging locals to grow grapes so people can make income from grapes, and from other things. Then you know this will be gradually protected.
EA: take the pressure off.
N: take the pressure off yeah.
JS: and fun jung dong [?] too is trying to find out how to grow many of these medicinal in his botanical garden and in his nursery so rather than harvesting them from the wild. They can produce them- they can cultivate them and therefore take the pressure off the wild populations.
EA: norbu, do you ever use traditional medicine yourself?
N: yeah
EA; Example?
N; I remember when we when I was young I always went to mountain with my father, you know when he cut his his like his [??] or his hand [?] he normally used a kind of plant to stop the blood. So that's called echahow[?] in chinese I don't know what that is in English. And people said that's very poisonous, if you don't know how to use it properly, you may die. And my father's brother the third brother, he died because he didn't use that medicine brother, because he went to the mountain to cut lok[?] Then he hurt his knee you know then he used that plant then he died in the mountain. So that's why I have one more sister. She is the daughter of my uncle.
JS: she's your cousin,
N: she's my cousin
JS: but she joined your family.
N: when she was three years old.
EA: so it's a serious business this plant stuff you can make a wrong turn. I wouldn't want to buy the wrong thing in this store
JS: or use it incorrectly.
N: Tibetan doctor told us, all medicine has poison. But so you should know how to use it properly if you don't know how to use to then it will be poisonous.
EA: before I forget, I want to know the Tibetan and Chinese name for snow lotus.
N: Chinese name is shue lang hua. Shue means snow, lang hua means lotus.

N goes to ask shop owner Tibetan name
N: la ki ta pu. -that is the location of where the snow lotus grow. So la ki ta pu. That means scree. You know grow in the scree.
EA: as you know very well wayne.
WL: yeah it definitely grows in the scree. Scree flower...
EA: can we look at some of these things when we have a minute her?
JS: when she's counted her money, and he's counted his caterpillar fungus..

EA: you kind of wonder, how did they ever discover the medicinal purposes of a...
JS: that's a huge question....[EA talking overlaps] you know here we have thousands and thousands of plants how did people discover what they're useful for. It's in different places you get different answers. In the Amazon, the shaman tell you that the plants talk to them, and they know what they tell them what they're useful for
N: I think after thousands experiments not somebody suddenly found it. Slowly slowly.

Because Tibetan have medical history, where it already has like 2000 or 3000 years old.
JS: oh at least
N: yeah at least
EA: so that's a long time for trial and error.
EA: you've studied a lot of cultures, is traditional medicine fairly prevalent in this culture compared to some of the others?
JS: I think it's important in most traditional cultures. I mean it's part of the European heritage in medicine too. You know that the early texts, early medical texts were all doctors had to be botanists at the same time. And still in places like Spain all botanical gardens have to have a pharmacist on staff because that used to be a very close tie. You know we've removed- the tie is still there today but it's not as obvious to you, you know a huge proportion of our medicine are derived from plant products. It either directly or indirectly through synthesis. [truck] But in cultures that are still in contact with nature. Much more directly in contact with nature that almost all cultures have plants that they use. Even animals do. We have zo-phramacognacy[sp?]-. Where people study how animals use plants to medicate themselves.
EA: like dogs eating grass to throw up
JS: exactly, and chimpanzees and gorillas and so on. There's a lot of evidence that medicine, that plant medicines are used by animals as well. So you know it goes beyond humans I think it's just part of part of how plants and animals interact.
EA: you have a lot of irons in the fire. What do you tell people that you do when you're going over to china?
JS: I always try to break it down to the absolute simplest: I'm studying how people use plants. You know and and in every aspect of their lives, from food and fiber. Medicine isn't our only concern. We're using we're looking at lots of agricultural practices and dyes and jewelry and horticulture
N: religions[?]...
EA: and that relates to the Gloria project, that if plants are disappearing moving up...
JS: that can change the basis of our cultures.

Norbu talking to shopkeeper.
Getting her name on tape?
Or just name of shop on tape?
Shop doesn't have a name.

SK [shopkeeper]: speaks
N: that's called zan zan pu[?]...[SK speaks]...That's good for infections of the intestine, infection of you know organs so this is a very good medicine for those diseases.

SK: speaks
N: that's called tien ma...[sk speaks] that's good for the people who feel dizzy.
EA: dizziness
N: yeah, dizziness
EA: and what would you do, would you cut it up?
N: no, you you mix soup. [loud truck]
EA: you make a soup out of it.
N: and then you put that in the soup
EA: is that what you do for most of these, you put them in a soup.
N: yup
EA: that would have been helpful yesterday.
N: that's very popular, we eat it every day
[SK speaks]
N: bai mu[?]...[SK speaks]...good for cough. [loud engine]

EA: which one is wayne doing his research on?
N: this
EA: this is the one that's good for cough? What's it called?
N: fidilaria?
JS: fridilary.
EA: do you know what that comes from?
JS: yeah, it's a lily, it's a fridilaria plant and it's the bulb on the underground, it's the rhysome. So um its that's another one that's very popularly collected. And that we were looking at the population biologies to figure out how severely it's effected. We have records from from the early explorers that it was collected back then too. So we have hundred of years of collection of this species. It is threatened it isn't quite as threatened as the snow lotus.
EA: and that's for coughing...
N: yeah.
JS: and colds.
SK: speaks
N: hom zim dieh.[?]....good for altitude sickness
EA: altitude sickness, we need a little of that
JS: where can we find it?
N: we can find this...
EA: it looks like ginger or some kind of a root.
Norbu speaks to SK
N: yeah it's root.
SK speaks
N: snow tea, we saw this yesterday
EA: oh snow tea
SK speaks
N: so this is good for cold
EA you need that
SK speaks
N: that one's called san chi[?]..[SK speaks]...that's good for injury
EA: like blood, or black and blue, sore
N: yeah sore
SK speaks
N: this is the snow lotus
EA: this is the snow lotus here, huh.
SK speaks
JS: no that's the medusa, that's the smaller one.
SK speaks
N: these are two different species you can find this in a very very high elevation. Scree. This is a little lower elevation. The prize. This one is more expensive. This is 100 yen for half kilogram This one is 50 yen for half kilogram. So this one is more expensive.
EA: and what do people use this for?
SK speaks.
N: women's diseases...[EA: primarily women's diseases]...[SK speaks]...and rheumatism.
EA: what's the biggest most popular item?
N: snow lotus
SK speaks
N: Snow lotus...

EA: caterpillar fungus
SK speaks
N: that's called sang hung wa[?]
EA: oh saffron and what do people use saffron for?
N: to produce blood for body
EA: so she said the big sellers are snow lotus,
N: mmhmm, fridilaria
EA: and that's for cough
N: yeah for cough
EA: and then catepillar fungus, which is for...can't remember
JS: strength
EA: strength, virility. and saffron for good blood
N: yeah good blood.
EA: I'm trying to think what I need -do you have anything for sunburn? Plants for sunburn?
N explains to SK
EA: a hat maybe
JS: they don't suffer from sunburn
N: yeah that's what she said, ¿we don't have this problem.¿

EA: so these are snow lotus up here, right
JS: are these more expensive
N: so those are the best
JS: the biggest ones
EA: they are big
SK speaks
N: she can only find five or six from one big sack from one big sack of snow lotus
JS: that are that large
EA: so they're getting smaller
JS: they're getting smaller.
EA: anecdotal evidence right there I suppose. And again a plant like that would be what are we talking...
JS: ten years old probably
EA: Ten years old
JS: from the time it starts as a little tiny rosette to the time that it finally flowers. And it may be more than that, especially a large plant like that may take longer.

N: I see dried masoutaki [?]
EA: oh that's the masoutaki, people just eat that right
JS: does it have medicinal purposes as well?
N: yah, Japanese believe that good also for cancer that
JS: and also good for men right
N: I never heard
EA: everything's good for men

EA: this place doesn't have a name. What is the name for this kind of shop. These kinds of places?
N: he zung sa [?] He means medicine, zung sa, means the place where you buy or sell medicine.
EA: so medicine store. As opposed to a place where everything in boxes and little jars. This is more...well, do they have...
JS: they have things in boxes too but actually if you go into the pharmacy which is just down the street here you will find a lot of these things as well, they'll have baimu, for sale for illnesses. So a phar-There;s not the division in this country as there is in the US between what is a medicinal plant and what is packaged medicine
EA: it's all the same.
JS: it's all medicine

JS: stick your nose in here
EA: woah! coughing
JS; oh I love, it we don't usually get to see that much saffron in the US
EA: no its always in these little tiny...
JS: we buy it ten stamens at a time
EA: and why do we buy it?
JS: this is a great gift to bring home. we use it as a spice in food
EA: and it's expensive
JS: and it's very expensive. It's cheaper here, and one of the most potent that I've seen because it's fresh here
EA: and it comes from...
JS: it comes from the crocus and you can see it here
EA: hey now in these little gift boxes
JS: aren't those cute? Those are the chum chao[?] and those are the bai mu[?]
EA: can you imagine getting caterpillar fungus under the Christmas tree in a little red box, wow...

EA: so we need to get a little sound. So we'll just stand here for a bit

street sounds
car honk

street sounds
car engine

street sounds
voices in store

street sounds

street sounds
male voices in store

loud car horn

street sounds
squealing brakes
loud engines

very loud car horn as drives past

female voices
rattling? Shells?

voices in store

street sounds: cars go by, faint voices.

LdA: that was inside a shop, going out to the street..

loud engine -motorbike?

Female voices, footsteps


engine revving


bell ringing

LdA: we're going to walk through a market...

many voices -mostly women and children?

child crying



LdA: wow, it's amazing -they have everything! We just walked through the market and there was everything you can think of...
JS: yeah there are hardware stores and jewelry stores and clothing as well as the meat and the fish and the vegetables you can get most everything here!
LdA: and everything looks pretty fresh
JS: food's pretty good

street sounds, voices

loud engine

many voices

bell ringing

car horn
engine start
bell ringing -continuous
big truck?, engine, horn

lots of honking

bell ringing continues



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