Huang Qi (Astragalus, Chinese Milkvetch)
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Cara
Posted on: July 06, 2007

Thank you for offering your knowledge and expertise to us all!

What do you know about Huang Qi / milkvetch / astralagus? I have heard it is an in demand TCM herb that could have a market in North America -- would it do well in Cranbrook, British Columbia?

Huang qi or Chinese milkvetch (Astragalus membranaceus) is one of the most important herbs in Chinese traditional medicine (TCM). It boosts the immune system. It useful for fatigue; it has beneficial effects on the heart and circulation; and it improves the functioning of the kidneys, liver and endocrine system. Because of these properties there has been a lot of interest in growing the herb commercially over the past decade, but the market for North American astragalus roots was initially slow to develop and some early producers did not do well. However, demand for clean, certified organic product is growing, and buyers are out there looking for product. Just last week buyers were asking about this crop.

Astragalus is a hardy perennial. It does grow well in British Columbia; for example in the Okanagan it has been grown successfully. Grower, David Carr, spoke at the Richters Fourth Commercial Herb Growing Conference in 1999 on growing astragalus and other oriental herbs; here is what he had to say about astragalus:

In 1983, the government of China invited the Cancer Society from British Columbia to come to Beijing for a week-long symposium on astragalus, to present scientific studies to the world. Astragalus (or huang qi as it’s called in China) is a “chi” force medicine. One half of oriental medicine has licorice in it, and the other half has astragalus. You go into one of those Chinese stores and start looking at the contents on the medicines and you’ll see Astragalus membranaceus; it’s always in there, a number one immune system stimulant.

This astragalus is a root, looks like a big fat white parsnip, and it can get two feet long. You’re going to try and grow this thing for five years until it gets medicinally potent. You see it in the Chinese herb stores in gift boxes and jars. They look like white tongue depressors, boxes of them with flat slabs that are maybe half an inch to an inch-and-a-half wide. The Chinese sell it for two dollars a pound if it’s a half-inch wide, four dollars a pound if it’s three-quarters of an inch wide, and ten dollars a pound if it’s in inch-and-a-half wide slices. Currently the majority of astragalus on the market is Chinese product and the value of it is determined by the width of the slices. But for North American grown, get on the Internet and look up astragalus and you’ll see that certified organic, North American grown astragalus is worth three times the price, and you can sell all that you can produce right now. The difference between us and the Chinese will be that we’re growing ours certified organic and they’re putting night soil on theirs, and we don’t consider that a proper organic practice

Echinacea is only surpassed in its immune-stimulant qualities by astragalus, which is typically found in over half of Chinese medicines. So if someone has land that will grow a deep root, for five years, and be free of voles, moles, and gophers, they’’ll stand a chance of producing a profitable cash crop with today’s demand for astragalus.

The competition for any TCM crop is always going to be Chinese imports. We have been hearing a lot about quality and safety issues of Chinese imported products such as pet foods and toothpaste. We have long known that Chinese agricultural practices are sometimes suspect; not only do farmers routinely use human manure to fertilize herb crops, they use a wide variety of pesticides that would never be allowed in Canada. A healthy distrust of Chinese grown product is developing and I believe the market is ripe for domestically produced certified organic product of high quality.

Also, do you have any advice about growing sea buckthorn in general and whether its suited to British Columbia conditions?

Seabuckthorn is a very hardy bush or small tree. The crop was promoted to farmers throughout Western Canada since the early 1990s, perhaps even earlier. There is little doubt that the plant grows well in British Columbia, as it does throughout the prairies.

Overzealous marketing probably led to an oversupply of sea buckthorn berries and products in the early years, as consumers were not familiar the plant’s properties and uses. However, like astragalus, the market has developed over the past decade and now there is a greater awareness and recognition of the plant, and there are now companies that are growing and manufacturing seabuckthorn products successfully.

In the "Resources" section of our GrowerZone area of our website (visit: yoyu will find a number of useful online resources on seabuckthorn. One of those is a special crops factsheet prepared by the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture and Food.

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