Mugwort works its magic

Updated:2018-06-19 09:20:41

A TCM practitioner in Qichun, Hubei province, burns mugwort while treating a client by moxibustion. FENG YONGBIN/CHINA DAILY

  Herb used in TCM is making a difference in impoverished county in Hubei province.

  When Wang Xingjian arrived in Qichun, Hubei province, 12 years ago to buy mugwort from local farmers, he was surprised to find there was none available in the county, traditionally famous for producing the herb.

  "Farmers only grew a few mugwort plants around their houses for their own use, and never thought of growing more for sale," Wang, a businessman from Qingdao, Shandong province, said. "For two years I could not get any mugwort, despite visiting the whole county."

  Wild mugwort used to grow all over the mountains in Qichun, but the use of pesticides and weed killers by farmers to improve grain yields had killed off a lot of the mugwort, Wang said.

  Unable to find enough mugwort, Wang started to breed mugwort seeds three years later and employ farmers to grow the plant. He now has a 20-hectare mugwort plantation and his company uses the herb in various moxibustion products, including a cigar-like stick.

  Moxibustion is a traditional Chinese medicine practice, believed to increase blood circulation, in which dried mugwort leaves are burned to heat pressure points. The smoke from the burning mugwort also has medicinal effects.

A villager in Qichun county gathers dried mugwort leaves for processing. FENG YONGBIN/CHINA DAILY

  "Planting of mugwort in Qichun has increased rapidly since 2014, the year when the county government started to call on farmers to grow the herb," Wang said.

  "Now my mugwort and its products are sold across China, and even to other countries such as Russia and the United States. A TCM researcher from Germany also bought mugwort seeds from me for breeding research."

  Xia Chenjie, a Qichun native, said that like many other people in the county, he has used mugwort since he was a child.

  "When I was child my mother would always prepare bath water with mugwort on the Dragon Boat Festival, as it is said to be able to ward off evil," he said.

  "And I would also drink mugwort leaf water or chew the leaves when I got conditions such as fever or diarrhea, and they proved effective."

  Although Western medicine is widely available, many people in rural parts of the county still hang mugwort on their doors to drive away evil spirits, he said.

Wang Xingjian at his Qichun county mugwort plantation. FENG YONGBIN/CHINA DAILY

  Tian Qun, president of Qiai Industry Association, a local organization made up of mugwort enterprises, farmers and researchers, said mugwort is part of everyday life in Qichun.

  "Everyone uses mugwort, and many people's livelihoods are related to it," he said.

  However, Tian said, it was not until 2013 that the herb was grown commercially on a large scale, gradually developing into an industry.

  The revival of mugwort in Qichun, pushed by the local government, is expected to be a driving force in the county's economic development and help to lift residents out of poverty.

  In May, the local government held a ceremony in Qichun to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Li Shizhen, one of the most famous pharmacists in ancient China, who was born in the county, to underline its determination to develop the TCM industry.

  Although Qichun was an ideal place for growing mugwort, locals had not paid enough attention to the herb for many years, said Yu Lipeng, deputy chief of the county's publicity department.

  In recent years the local government has been emphasizing mugwort's role in developing the county's TCM industry, a government priority, he said.

A worker crushes dried mugwort leaves into a velvet-like product. FENG YONGBIN/CHINA DAILY

  Following a visit by county government officials to South Korea in 2010, where they were impressed by traditional medicine research and development, the local government decided to take measures to develop the mugwort industry, Yu said.

  The government has integrated planting of mugwort with poverty reduction since 2014, hoping the herb can help lift farmers in the county out of poverty.

  Regarded by the central government as an impoverished county, Qichun's per capita GDP last year was only 29,472 yuan ($4,600), according to the county government, far below the national average of 59,660 yuan.

  An annual subsidy of 6,000 yuan has been offered since 2014 for every hectare of land sown with mugwort by a household registered as living in poverty, the county government said.

  Meanwhile, enterprises involved in the industry in the county also benefit from preferential policies such as loan subsidies, Yu said.

  The number of farmers growing the herb now exceeds 40,000accounting for about 4 percent of the county's populationand the total area planted with mugwort is more than 10,000 hectares, he said.

  By the end of last year, more than 20,000 households in the county had escaped poverty by planting mugwort, Yu said.

  By the end of last year, the number of registered enterprises involved in the mugwort industry in Qichun exceeded 1,100, with the industry's value increasing by 1 billion yuan year-on-year to 3 billion yuan, according to the county government.

  Gan Huawen, a human resources manager at Qiaitang, a company that produces mugwort-related products in Qichun, said it has developed more new products using mugwort as an ingredient, including shampoo, toothpaste and beverages.

A villager in Qichun county, Hubei province, bundles mugwort sticks for burning as a mosquito repellent. FENG YONGBIN/CHINA DAILY

  Zhang Zhiguo, who lives in Qichun's Liuqian village, said he started to grow mugwort about three years ago.

  "I used to grow cotton, but now all the land has been used to grow mugwort," he said. "Now every household in the village grows it."

  Zhang, 70, said he is growing mugwort on about 1.3 hectares of land and could sell the harvest for about 40,000 yuan.

  "Growing mugwort requires less labor than cotton, and it can be easily sold," he said. "Every year there are company staff from nearby buying it during the harvest season."

  Zhang said he had heard of farmers from nearby villages receiving government subsidies for growing the herb, but had not received any himself.

  Chen Lihong, 53, also from Liuqian village, said she has been growing mugwort for the past three years.

  "I can sell the leaves, but no one want the sticks, so I use them to make fire to cook," she said. "Most farmers growing mugwort here are old people. Young people think farming is too hard and many of them have migrated to cities to work."

  Wang Xi, secretary-general of Qiai Industry Association, said Chinese people will pay more attention to their health as they become wealthier, and TCM techniques such as moxibustion, which have fewer side effects, will become more popular.

  "We have seen an increasing number of healthcare shops that provide moxibustion services, which use products with mugwort as the primary material," he said. "The popularity of the internet has also promoted the spread of moxibustion, and many people can learn from the internet how to use the techniques at home."

  Mei Quanxi, a TCM professor at Zhongshan TCM Hospital, in Zhongshan, Guangdong province, which is affiliated with Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine, said some other places in China are also famous for producing high-quality mugwort, including Henan and Zhejiang provinces, but studies had shown mugwort grown in Qichun could release more heat than that grown in other places, which made it ideal moxibustion material.

  Geng Yongqin, who manages a store that provides moxibustion healthcare services in Qichun, said there were few such businesses in the county when her store opened in 2015, but there are now nearly 200.

  Most customers visited in the afternoon or in the evening, and many of them suffered from conditions such as fatigue or insomnia, she said.

Cao Zhongbing, a teacher at Hubei Polytechnic University in Huangshi, Hubei province, shows students how to do moxibustion. FENG YONGBIN/CHINA DAILY

  Zhang Dan, a moxibustion practitioner at the store, said it had special rooms equipped with exhaust fans and air purifiers so those who were sensitive to the smoke produced during moxibustion could be treated.

  Tian, president of Qiai Industry Association, said that with strong government support, he foresees rapid development and upgrading of the county's mugwort industry in the next few years.

  However, there were also many policy obstacles to be faced, he said.

  "Most products made with mugwort for moxibustion are not regarded as drugs, although they have health effects," he said.

  "This has increased their difficulty in entering hospitals and pharmacy stores."

  Mei, from Zhongshan TCM Hospital, said a big concern for the promotion of moxibustion is the heat and smoke it produces.

  "Although the smoke due to burning of mugwort contains chemicals that have drug effects, inhaling too much smoke can damage your health," he said.

  "The smoke caused during moxibustion is a major reason that has stopped the technique from being promoted overseas."