On the Nature of Tropical Fruits in TCM
by Eric Brand
Summertime is here and tropical fruit is hitting the market. Several fruits that are regarded as relatively extreme in terms of their nature and flavor according to Chinese medicine. Interestingly, some fruits are the subject of disagreement when it comes to their nature and flavor. Many fruits are cooling and tend to boost the body fluids. However, some fruits are regarded as particularly hot, and many people in Asia tend to be cautious with their consumption of these hot fruits.
Litchi and longan (li zhi and long yan rou) are both regarded as warming fruits. The classic story is about some cousin or friend who ate a whole bag of litchis and had a nosebleed. This nosebleed tale is deeply embedded in Asian culture, though personally I’ve eaten a lot of litchis without ever suffering a nosebleed. Nonetheless, the seeds of litchi (li zhi he) are used in Chinese medicine, and they are regarded as a warm qi-moving agent that is particularly useful for mounting (shan) qi. This application demonstrates their warmth (shan qi is often caused by cold accumulation in the liver channel), and the flesh of their fruit is considered to be warm as well. Litchi fruit is said to “free the spirit and boost the mind,” and excessive consumption is said to cause heat effusion. Like its close relative, long yan rou, litchi fruit is said to fortify the spleen.
The most famous application of long yan rou (dried longan fruit) in TCM is its use in Gui Pi Tang, a warm qi and blood supplementing formula. Long yan rou is considered to be an item that should be used cautiously with heat and stagnation, so be careful of gorging on fresh longans all summer long.
Without a doubt, the most famous hot fruit is durian. Durian is a huge, heavy, spiky fruit that comes from Southeast Asia. It is prominent in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and it is often called the “King of Fruits.” Durian is extremely pungent, and because of its strong smell it is banned in many indoor areas in places like Thailand and Singapore. In TCM, the presence of strong fragrance is often linked to heat. We see this with the odor of breath and stool, as well as the odor of meats (lamb and goat are considered warmer than beef because of their strong odor). Durian is no exception, and it is considered to be the hottest fruit. In Thailand, it is considered to be so supplementing that it is eaten after childbirth.
On the opposite side of the spectrum are cooling fruits. Watermelon is one of the most famous cooling fruits, and is often described as “natural bai hu tang (White Tiger Decoction).” Watermelon shakes are common throughout Chinese society in the hot season, especially in the South. Mangosteens, a delightful little white fruit, are also considered to be cooling. Mangosteens are said to offset the heat of durian, so the two are often consumed together. Mangosteens, like gou qi zi, have recently become a popular “superfood” in the West.
One of the most delicious and contentious fruits is mango. Mango is generally considered to be sweet, sour, and cold or cool in Chinese dietary therapy texts. Yet excessive consumption of mango tends to produce symptoms of damp-heat, particular skin reactions. Because of this, some practitioners regard mango as a warm substance. Thus, there is a lack of clear consensus on its nature.
In fact, one of the items in clinical TCM with the most striking lack of consensus on its thermal nature is also a fruit. I am referring to immature bitter orange (zhi shi). Zhi shi is distinctive in TCM because Chinese source texts are split on its temperature. Several key texts state that it is cold, while other texts state that it is warm. During the process of compiling a materia medica based on primary Chinese sources, I was surprised to see that zhi shi has by far the least consensus of any item in the core materia medica. I love little things like this, because one can see so many different perspectives in the Chinese literature.
Wishing everyone a happy summer with lots of fresh fruit!