The Interesting Situation with San Qi
by Eric Brand
San qi, also called tian qi, notoginseng, or pseudoginseng, is an important medicinal substance in Chinese medicine. It comes from the same genus as Chinese and American ginseng, and all three of these Panax species have some overlapping constituents despite having significant differences in chemistry and clinical use. In contrast to the primarily supplementing American and Chinese ginsengs, san qi is most well-known for its blood-stanching and blood-quickening actions.
The issue of adulteration is generally not a major problem with Chinese or American ginseng, but authentication and adulteration is a major issue with san qi, particularly in Cantonese pharmacies. With American and Chinese ginseng, the primary issues in herbal pharmacy revolve around quality discernment, whereas the issues with san qi revolve around processing techniques and species identification.
Authentication issues with Chinese and American ginseng are generally limited to inaccurate listing of growing regions, such as Chinese-grown American ginseng that is labeled as Canadian- or Wisconsin-grown. The other authentication issue with Chinese and American ginseng relates to intermixing of the species. This typically happens in Northeastern China, where both American (Panax quinquefolium L.) and Chinese (P. ginseng C.A.Mey) ginseng species are cultivated. These hybrid species can be difficult to definitively identify visually, but they can be readily distinguished with chemical and genetic tests.
By contrast, the situation with san qi is one of gross substitution, two completely unrelated plants are sold under the name san qi. I first became aware of this issue years ago when I was still in school. At the time, I worked in a Chinese herbal pharmacy run by a Chinese-Vietnamese herbalist in Southern California. He would refer to the normal san qi that we learned about in school as tian qi, and would dispense a different herb when san qi was specified. He believed san qi and tian qi to be two distinct items, though all textbooks clearly say that these two names are synonymous and should both refer to normal notoginseng. The true notoginseng is the hard, dense, node-heavy product that most of us are familiar with. The false notoginseng is a sliced, light, and white root product that looks similar to yu zhu (Siberian Soloman’s seal).
For years I wondered why these two items were commonly confused in Chinatown pharmacies, and I had no idea what the other “san qi” product really was. None of my teachers could tell me and none of the books mentioned it when I was in school. Finally, I learned the answer after I discovered a book called Easily Confused Medicines of Hong Kong, by Dr. Zhao Zhongzhen. This book has detailed photos and excellent descriptions of virtually all the commonly misidentified herbs that we see in the US marketplace (Chinatown herbal pharmacies in the US are often Cantonese-run, so the identification issues in the US are largely the same as those of Hong Kong).
As it turns out, the white, misidentified product is known as Rhizoma Tupistrae, and it is toxic. The exact species used has not yet been definitively identified, only the genus is known. This plant is a heat-clearing, toxin-resolving substance that should never be used in place of san qi. The two are commonly confused because of the similarity of their Chinese names (the adulterant plant is known as Chuan San Qi). True san qi should be very dense, grayish-yellow, brownish-yellow, or black; the true and false products are easily distinguished visually.
Once the correct species is identified, the next issue to be aware of relates to processing methods. For authentic san qi, we see two different products on the market, depending on the pao zhi (processing) method used. In the old days, all the best san qi was exported, and the export grade was colored with coal smoke and coated with insect wax to make it shiny. This causes the roots to have a black, shiny appearance, and the prominence of this processing method for quality san qi caused many global markets to develop a preference for the black, shiny form. Consequently, we see that the Hong Kong, Taiwan, and US markets primarily stock this black-processed form.
Unprocessed san qi is naturally brownish, yellowish, and slightly gray in color. Depending on the soil and growing environment, it can come out more yellowish or more brownish, but it is quite distinct from the black, shiny form. Regardless of color, the roots have the same characteristic dense, stubby, and nodular shape. Small roots are inexpensive, while older and larger roots fetch a premium price. On the Chinese wholesale market, large, premium san qi sells for a price that is comparable to decent red ginseng.
Relatively few practitioners are aware of the issues regarding the authentication of san qi. Our herbal community is increasingly paying more and more attention to safety, quality, and authenticity, and san qi is one of the first herbs that practitioners should learn about in this regard. I will continue to use this blog as a place to write brief articles on other substances that require diligence with regard to correct product identification and safe use, so check back with us frequently to read more.