Chinese American Herbal Medicine: A History of Importation and Improvisation

By Tamara Venit Shelton

“Chinese herbalists imported everything from China.” This is what I consistently heard from herbalists I interviewed when writing Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace. As far as anyone knew, when the first generation of Chinese herbalists began to immigrate to the United States in the 1850s, they imported all their medicinal ingredients from China through the port of San Francisco. By 1878, there were eighteen wholesale companies in San Francisco that serviced Chinese herb shops across the United States. In later years, herbalists could find what they needed through wholesalers in Portland, Seattle, St. Louis, and Chicago.[i]

Fig 1: Frontispiece of The Science of Oriental Medicine, 1902. Los Angeles Herbalists Tom Leung and Li Wing advertised their remedies to English-speaking patients through long and short-form print advertisements. Public Domain.

Historians of China are aware of the importance of improvisation and substitution in traditional Chinese medicine, and yet the prevalent assumption that all Chinese medicines were imported to the United States made some sense. After all, according to thousands of years of Chinese herbal lore, therapeutic efficacy relied on a highly specific process of procuring medicinal plants, animals, and minerals. The collection or cultivation of traditional medicinal ingredients in China happened only in well-defined areas, under certain seasonal, climatic, and astrological conditions.

Yet as I dug into archives, historical newspapers, memoirs, and oral histories, it became apparent that historically, practitioners of traditional Chinese herbalism in America sourced most, but not all of their supplies in China. There is ample evidence – both anecdotal and archaeological – that the Chinese in America grew and foraged for local sources of medicinal ingredients. These findings speak to the ways in which diasporic Chinese medicine responded to new conditions as well as to the resourcefulness and adaptability of its practitioners.

Fig 2: A.P. Russell, a West Virginia merchant, shows off a 1700 pound shipment of ginseng destined for China in 1928. Wild ginseng, foraged in Appalachia, was a major American export to China from the late eighteenth century until its overharvesting led to near extinction in the mid-twentieth century. Public Domain.

Looking back to the end of the nineteenth century, we see examples of Chinese and non-Chinese farmers growing medicinal herbs and roots for Chinese herb businesses. In 1898, a newspaper in Washington D.C. reported that Lee Poit, recently transplanted from California, had given up trying to compete in the crowded field of laundry and retail and was instead growing “many queer vegetables and herbs” on four acres of land that he rented near Terra Cotta Station, on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Line.[ii] Across the country, J. B. McCloskey, an American farmer who studied commercial ginseng production in Korea, opened his own farm on two acres in Oxnard and became the major supplier for Los Angeles-area Chinese physicians in 1904.[iii]

Zoological-based medicines also seem to have been locally sourced. The Chinese collected all manner of reptiles and amphibians – snakes, lizards, frogs, and toads – to supplement dried, imported varieties in America. Sometimes, doctors substituted local species that seemed similar to what would have been available in China. In Boise, Idaho, C.K. Ah Fong famously used rattlesnake (a North American reptile) in traditional Chinese tinctures to treat arthritis, and amidst other Chinese health-related artifacts from Lovelock, Nevada, archaeologist Sarah Heffner has found bobcat bones that may have been used in place of expensive, imported tiger bones.[iv]

Fig 3: Canton Harbor and Factories with Foreign Flags, 1805. European and American traders exchanged medicinal goods through this port city. Public Domain.

Substitution was just one form of improvisational thinking among Chinese herbalists in the United States. Studies of hand-written prescriptions from Chinese American apothecaries reflect a tendency to include an unusually long list of ingredients. This divergence may have been an artifact of herbalists’ swift business in mail-orders for patients unable to meet face-to-face. Patients wrote letters describing their ailment or filled out a pre-printed “symptom sheet,” and the doctor sent back a package of medicine along with a detailed instruction sheet. With an extra-long list of ingredients, Chinese American herbalists could cover a lot of bases when confronted with ambiguous descriptions of symptoms.[v]

Fig 4: Cover image of Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace. Yale University Press.


Chinese doctors in the United States were not so bound by tradition that they resisted adapting their formularies to their new environment. We should remember them as the innovative immigrant entrepreneurs that they were. As herbalist Li Wing Fawn explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1897: “We shall not confine ourselves exclusively to the importations from the Orient, but shall seek out also the very many valuable medicinal herbs growing in our own country [the United States].”[vi]




[i] Haiming Liu, “Chinese Herbalists in the United States,” in Sucheng Chan, ed. Chinese American Transnationalism: the Flow of People, Resources, and Ideas between China and America during the Exclusion Era (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), 138.

[ii] “Lee Has a Chinese Farm,” New York Times, 31 October 1898, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Times.

[iii] “Local Ginseng Culture Promises Rich Returns,” Oxnard Courier, 27 May 1904; “Queer Chinese Medicines, Los Angeles Times, 11 August 1907, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times.

[iv] Sarah Heffner, “Exploring Health-Care Practices of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America,” Historical Archaeology 49 (2015): 141.

[v] Susie Lan Cassel et al, The Chinese in America: a History from Gold Mountain to the New Millennium (Lanham MD: AltaMira Press, 2002), 178.

[vi] Li Wing Fawn and B.C. Platt, “A Step in Advance,” Los Angeles Times, 26 May 1896, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times.



Tamara Venit Shelton is a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College and author of the award-winning book, Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace

Herbal History Research Network: A recipe for collaboration

Anne Stobart outlines the history of the Herbal History Research Network.

Need for herbal history research

Historical recipes contain many plant ingredients, indeed my own recipe database on seventeenth-century household medicine shows 78% of ingredients were of plant origin.[1] Yet, the range of information and research available about these herbs in history is fairly patchy and can be hard to find. Back in 2008, nearing completion of my PhD, I sat down with some medical herbalist colleagues in a London cafe and we had a collective moan about the paucity of herbal history research. Although I had come across hundreds of plants used in early modern recipes, prescriptions, purchased remedies and advice, I knew little about the way these plants were obtained, used or understood in historical contexts. Like my colleagues, I had trained extensively in botany and pharmacology of plants (Figure 1), but there had been little time for exploring the history of herbal medicine. As a lecturer on a degree level programme for professional herbalists I found it challenging to advise students about doing historical dissertations – it seemed

Figure 1. The dispensary in a university training clinic.

unkind to warn them of the lack of good sources, both primary and secondary, but this shortfall could severely affect their ultimate grades, particularly if they had little training in historical methods. As I talked further with colleagues about how we could promote more and better herbal history research, we realised that this was also a need of many research fields: from garden history to social history, from gender studies to the history of medicine.

How we started

As a group we agreed to set up the Herbal History Research Network, and the minutes of our first meeting record that we aimed ‘to promote rigorous and scholarly research of herbs and herbal traditions in historical contexts; referencing and acknowledging credit of sources; exercising care and discrimination as to how information is disseminated’. Our founding members (Susan Francia, Barbara Lewis, Vicki Pitman, Anne Stobart, Nicky Wesson) made a case for funding

Figure 2. Critical Approaches to the History of Western Herbal Medicine (2014)

from the Wellcome Trust and, with the support of Middlesex University, we planned several day seminars in 2010 in London. Our seminars included expert speakers covering many aspects of classical, medieval and early modern medicine, from Galen’s simple medicines to Anglo-Saxon herbals and early modern midwifery manuals and much more. The seminars were well-attended and evaluation showed that the interdisciplinary nature of the event was welcomed by participants. A selection of the conference papers has since been edited and published by Bloomsbury Academic.[2] A paperback version is now available (Figure 2).

Some good partnerships

We have arranged further day seminars in some excellent venues, including University of Reading (Explaining the Actions: Researching Herbal Pharmacology in History, 2011), Bradford-on-Avon Quaker Meeting House (Communicating Herbal Knowledge in the Past, 2012), Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (Gardens and Herbal History Research, 2013), RBG Kew (Illustration and Identification in the History of Herbal Medicine, 2014) and the Wellcome Library (Trade and Discovery in Herbal History, 2015 (Figure 3)).

The discovery of herbal medicines, engraving 1700-1799.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The advice and support from colleagues at these institutions has been most welcome and our events have often included extras, such as a visit to a botanical garden, always a plus! Attendance at these events confirms the interdisciplinary nature of herbal history, drawing in undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD students, university historians and ethnobotanical researchers, medical herbalists and medical practitioners, heritage centre and museum curators and many more. Extra support has been made available to students through prize book vouchers that we were able to give to students who made the best poster presentations. Support from the professional bodies of medical herbalists has been especially welcome, including the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy, National Institute of Medical Herbalists and Unified Register of Herbal Practitioners.

Further collaboration

To further encourage collaboration and networking, a Jiscmail subscription list has been established for researchers in the history of herbal medicine. The list is called HIST_HERB_MED. At the time of writing, over 120 subscribers have joined the list and they reflect a range of academic researchers, herbal practitioners and others actively involved in research. The list provides information about events and enables some discussion between medical herbalists and historians on specific issues. It is a good way to keep in touch with developments for individual researchers who are often plugging away alone.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead, we aim to borrow good practice from the experience of the Recipe Collective in developing a Herbal History website (all credit for setting this up to our colleague, Kimberley Walker). Here you can find out about our next seminar, based in the Midlands. The seminar theme is ‘Preservation Matters in the History of Herbal Medicine’, and it will be held on Wednesday 7th June 2017 at Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Full details of the programme and registration are online, and early registration attracts a discount. We welcome research student poster presentations at our seminars, so hope that colleagues will pass on details to likely contributors.

[1} Stobart A. (2016) Household medicine in seventeenth-century England, London: Bloomsbury Academic, p. 80.

[2] Francia S and Stobart A. (2014) Critical approaches to the history of western herbal medicine: From classical antiquity to the early modern period. London: Bloomsbury.

‘Take the sprigs of Oak trees’: Medicinal recipes and tree ingredients

By Anne Stobart

As a herbal practitioner, I have long been interested in historical uses of trees from folklore to domestic practices related to health. Recently, I have been looking at early modern medicinal recipes to consider how people might have obtained tree-based ingredients. Here, I briefly overview recipes in several English printed seventeenth-century books, the highly popular Choice Manuall of Rare and Select Secrets (1653) [1] and compare with a later publication Medicinal Experiments, or, a Collection of Choice Remedies (1692).[2]

Elizabeth Grey, A Choice Manuall. Frontispiece of 1671 edition.
Figure 1. Elizabeth Grey, A Choice Manuall. Frontispiece of 1671 edition.

Trees can be defined as large woody perennial plants, often self-supporting with a single stem and having branches at some height from the ground. Many medicinal items can be obtained from trees including fruits, flowers, leaves, roots, sap, bark and twigs, and provide ingredients for medicinal recipes. These can be readily distinguished as sourced either from native and naturalised trees in the British Isles or from trees native to other countries and regions. Most native trees are regarded as having considerable folklore use, although the actual records evidencing such uses may be partial.[3 ]

Young oak seedlings (author’s photograph).
Figure 2. Young oak seedlings (author’s photograph).

In Elizabeth Grey’s Choice Manuall (Figure 1), just under a third of the recipes, 112 altogether, contain ingredients originating from trees. Of these, 19 recipes can be identified as using parts of native trees – mainly ash, elder, hazel, hawthorn, holly, oak (Figure 2). Some recipes are simples, involving a single key ingredient, often based on leaves or fruits that might be available in the hedgerow at certain times of the year. Amongst recipes for bruises is the instruction to ‘Take the sprigs of Oak trees, and put them in paper, roast them, and break them, and drink as much of the powder as will lye upon a sixpence every morning’ (p.77). Another more complex recipe for distillation of ‘Aqua composita for the Collick and Stone’ (p.137) calls for birch leaves and haws, or the fruits of hawthorn (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Hawthorn berries or haws
Figure 3. Hawthorn berries or haws (author’ s photograph)

Some tree-based ingredients, such as bark (often called rind), may have required some effort to obtain. The use of bark dried to a powder appears several times, as in this example:

“For the Strangullion or the Stone.

Take the inner rind of a young ash, between two or three yeares of growth, dry it to pouder, and drinke of it as much at once, as will lye on a sixpence in Ale or White wine, and it will bring present remedie: The partie must be kept warm two hours after it.”(p.88)

Another recipe uses the inner bark of elder seethed with daisy roots in a butter ointment for an inflamed throat (p.90). Obtaining bark, particularly its removal from the tree and preparation, could require tools with sharp edges. If taken from the entire circumference, bark removal would cause the death of the branch or tree. Some tree barks were readily available because they were felled for other purposes such as timber, but they were destined for use in tanning leather. Apart from building needs, trees produced other valuable crops from fuel and fodder for livestock. Although some trees might have been accessible in a hedgerow, many were in woodlands or fields, requiring permission to access their produce, and these rights or ownership could be subject to conflict [4].

However, ingredients from native trees were few in number compared to exotic trees in the Choice Manual recipes. The great majority of tree-based ingredients (83%) were imports derived from tree bark and fruits, such as cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, as well as resins such as myrrh and frankincense. Other fruits and nuts such as dates and walnuts were included in medicinal broths and syrups. Recipes for external preparations often called for oils deriving from almond or olive trees. These items were generally products to be purchased from an apothecary or spicer.

Such imported ingredients were also popular in the later seventeenth-century recipe book of Robert Boyle’s Medicinal experiments, which included tree-sourced items in fourteen recipes. There were no native trees to be seen, with the exception of oil of juniper which was probably of European origin and purchased. Boyle’s recipe book contained a (relatively) new introduction from North America which was sassafras (Sassafras albidum, Figure 4). The aromatic bark and roots were particularly noted for their medicinal uses, and sassafras appeared in recipes for ‘A Lime water for Obstructions and Consumptions’ and ‘A Stomachical Tincture’ (pp. 12, 88).

Figure 4. Sassafras tree leaves (Wikipedia)
Figure 4. Sassafras tree leaves (Wikipedia)

In comparing these two English recipe books, from mid to late seventeenth century, we see that the popular Choice Manual included a range of native tree items, but such native sources were not included in Medicinal Experiments. However, both books included many exotic tree-derived ingredients, and Boyle’s book of recipes added a new item of sassafras from the Americas. I hope to investigate further how the uses of tree ingredients developed in the early modern period.

[1] Elizabeth Grey, A Choice Manuall of Rare and Select Secrets in Physick and Chirurgery (London: R. Norton, 1653).

[2] Robert Boyle, Medicinal Experiments, or, a Collection of Choice Remedies, for the Most Part Simple, and Easily Prepared (London: Printed for Sam Smith, 1692).

[3] On folklore see David E. Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield. Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2004) and Fiona Stafford, The Long, Long Life of Trees (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

[4] Nicola Whyte, Inhabiting the Landscape: Place, Custom and Memory, 1500-1800 (Oxford: Windgather, 2009).