Differentiating Chuan Bei Mu from Ping Bei Mu
by Eric Brand
Chuan Bei Mu (Fritillariae Cirrhosae Bulbus) is a very prized Chinese herb. It is common in Cantonese culture to consume Chuan Bei Mu as a general tonic for the lungs, and it is often integrated into Chinese herbal teas, desserts, and syrups sold in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Shops selling Chuan Bei products abound, and even the 7-11s there carry beverages that contain Chuan Bei Mu (some are even made by Coca-Cola).
Most practitioners use Chuan Bei Mu for treating cough with dryness and phlegm. Its range of use in clinical medicine is relatively specific compared to its folk medicine use, and most Western practitioners do not realize that a whole complex culture has developed around Chuan Bei Mu in places like Hong Kong. I suspect that any plant that can capture the attention and appreciation of an entire region of people must be an exceptional medicine, and I’ve always liked Chuan Bei Mu.
Chuan Bei Mu is very expensive, and can be divided into many different grades and subtypes. There are multiple species of fritillaria that are sold as Chuan Bei Mu, and, despite its name, not all the product actually originates in Sichuan. It is common for Chuan Bei Mu to be sulfured so that it has a smooth, pearly white appearance, but the unsulfured product can also be found on the market.
Due to its expense, most of the Chuan Bei Mu on the market is not completely pure; it tends to have the closely related fritillaria product Ping Bei Mu mixed in to a greater or lesser extent. Even at the wholesale price in China, good quality Chuan Bei Mu can cost over $200/kg. Unless the product is carefully graded into different price tiers, it tends to come with a mix of what is classified as first-grade and second-grade Chuan Bei Mu, plus about 10% or more Ping Bei Mu.
Most pharmacists don’t think of Ping Bei Mu as its own entity, it is usually just regarded as mediocre quality Chuan Bei Mu. Generally speaking, when one buys Chuan Bei Mu one is getting a mixture of Ping Bei Mu and Chuan Bei Mu, the two species are just regarded as different grades of the same item- Chuan Bei Mu. In fact, in the past Ping Bei Mu didn’t have its own entry in the Chinese Pharmacopoeia; it was just a subtype of Chuan Bei Mu. However, there is difference in medicinal quality and price between the two products, and they are now categorized as separate medicinals (albeit with the same actions) in the Chinese Pharmacopoeia.
Ping Bei Mu and Chuan Bei Mu can be distinguished in the following ways: Ping Bei Mu is flatter, with a more prominent black hole at the top. It has a slightly uneven base and only has two large white blades, it lacks the “small blade within a large blade” appearance of true Chuan Bei Mu (I’ll put photos up that show this clearly in a separate blog). By comparison, Chuan Bei Mu has a more pointed tip, a flatter base, and a tighter and less prominent little black hole on the top. Most importantly, it has a small blade within a large blade. Superior products have a very full and prominent small blade, while products one grade down tend to have less developed and less prominent small blades. The next grade down is Ping Bei Mu, and Ping Bei Mu is really basically just inexpensive Chuan Bei Mu for all practical purposes- not as good, but cheaper. The two should be generally differentiated, and then the different grades of Chuan Bei Mu can be separated. All this involves sorting tiny little bulbs individually by hand in most cases, but that’s the behind the scenes thing that is going on when it comes to Chuan Bei Mu.
The product in the photo is a typical mixed batch of Chuan Bei Mu (not sulfured). You can see some prominent examples of Ping Bei Mu, as well as one off to the left that has the all-important small blade within a large blade characteristic.