By Eric Brand
Pictured above are two specimens of whole Tian Ma (Gastrodiae Rhizoma), taken at an herb market in Guangzhou, China. Most practitioners are used to seeing Tian Ma sliced, but quality differentiation is most easily performed when the whole rhizome is examined. The two specimens above represent the two main forms of Tian Ma sold on the Chinese wholesale market: the standard cultivated product and the counterfeit wild (i.e. cultivated) product.
Tian Ma is a CITES-listed species that is critically endangered in the wild. However, wild Tian Ma is not an issue in trade because there is simply none left- basically everything on the market is cultivated. Cultivated Tian Ma has no particular ecological downside, and the virtual absence of genuine wild Tian Ma on the market means that trade in Tian Ma brings no risk of accidental substitution of the wild product. Tian Ma cultivation is particularly advanced and starts in a Petri dish, the plant is started by cell culture rather than simply planting seeds.
On the Chinese wholesale market, it is common to see product that is labeled as wild Tian Ma. In the photo above, the large single tuber is the standard cultivated product, whereas the smaller tubers in my right hand are the counterfeit “wild” product. The fake wild tubers are small and shriveled, with very dense wrinkles throughout their surface. These specimens come from higher, colder mountainous regions and are essentially specimens that are malnourished and thus have poor morphology. The plump, full roots are the standard cultivated product, and the two forms are thought to be clinically similar (the shriveled ones are sold separately to vendors that, either knowingly or unknowingly, misrepresent them as wild products to fetch a higher price). True wild Tian Ma is also shriveled and wrinkled. Thus, the counterfeit looks quite similar to a genuine wild product save for the fact that there is not enough wild Tian Ma left in existence to allow it to be sold in huge 20 kg bags like the ones I saw at the market.
To examine the quality of whole cultivated Tian Ma, pay attention to the density and consistency of the dotted annulations that run horizontally on the surface of the tuber; the denser, the better. Next, peel off the little spot at the “navel” at the base of the tuber. Underneath the navel is flesh with a pink color. The pink color can be seen in the photo above.
Remember, if someone tries to sell you “wild” Tian Ma, don’t pay too much for it! Thanks for reading our blog!