It is a crisp, quiet December morning at Mountain Gardens, a botanical garden in Burnsville featuring the largest collection of native Appalachian and Chinese medicinal herbs in the Eastern U.S. Joe Hollis, the gray-bearded man behind the off-the-grid herbal mecca and a teacher at Daoist Traditions College in Asheville’s Montford neighborhood, is seated at a table surrounded by dog-eared books on plants and philosophy.
With the rising interest in alternative medicine and alternative crops, many forward-thinking growers are starting to raise Chinese herbs on American soil. Hollis, however, has been at it for decades, well before goji berries were the latest health craze. He shares some of his journey in growing Chinese herbs and explains why growers and consumers should be interested in “going local” for their Chinese herbs.
Mountain Xpress: There has been a lot of recent interest in growing Chinese herbs in the United States, but you have been doing it at Mountain Gardens for many years. How did you first get interested in growing?
Joe Hollis: Well, I picked up a book [Chinese Tonic Herbs by Ron Teeguarden] at the bookstore on Chinese tonic herbs, and it was the first I had ever heard anything [about them]. That was about 25 or 30 years ago. [The book] had to do with Daoism, which is very interesting to me. I’ve always thought of myself as a Daoist.
So it started off with a whole lot of philosophy, which I thought was pretty interesting. I thought, “What is this book of herbs that is starting off with five chapters of Chinese philosophy?” And then it turns out that these tonic herbs are health-promoting herbs, by and large, which is not a category of herbs that was traditionally [included] in Western herbal medicine at all. They have [health-promoting herbs] in Ayurvedic medicine. They call them rasayanas, which means rejuvenators, and they have them in Chinese medicine; they’re called the tonics.
Now we call them adaptogens, and we say they boost the immune system. [About 20 years ago,] the American Medical Association was saying ginseng [and its health benefits] was a myth, and it didn’t really do anything. All that has changed a lot.
But that book is what really got me interested, and then I wanted to grow all these Chinese herbs. I got into a big effort to round up the seeds. I wrote to botanical gardens in China and Japan to see if I could grow all these plants. … Slowly one by one, these herbs [have become] well-known and show up at health food stores [now]. But … when I started on it, nobody had ever heard of schisandra or goji berries.
Next thing that happened is that a [Chinese medical] practitioner moved here just down the road, so I started filling prescriptions for her, and that got me involved in all the Chinese herbs, not just the tonic ones. So one thing led to another, and I got involved in teaching at [Daoist Traditions] the first year the school opened.
And why should people care about growing or buying these plants locally as opposed to getting them shipped from China?
There’s a lot of worry about pollution in China and overharvesting of endangered species. A lot of herbs are getting onto endangered species lists, and then they can’t be imported. Those are probably the two biggest issues. And for us, it presents alternative crops. People always talk about replacing tobacco, and a certain amount of tobacco settlement money has gone to giving people grants for growing herbs as an alternative crop.
If people want to try growing Chinese herbs in their backyard or even on a larger scale, what plants would you recommend?
Within that category of tonics — longevity plants, you could call them — there’s one called jiaogulan [Gynostemma], which has the same properties as ginseng but is much easier to grow. There’s a plant called codonopsis, also known as “poor man’s ginseng,” that’s also quite easy to grow and has ginsenglike properties. Astragalus is quite easy to grow; that’s a big herb for the immune system. Chrysanthemums are very nice; you can make a nice tea from the flowers, and there are different varieties. Goji berries seem to grow well, but there is some confusion about whether we have the right strain of them growing here. [Find more information on easy-to-grow Chinese herbs at mountaingardenherbs.com.]
In general, there seems to be more interest in alternative medicine now, as well as in growing Chinese herbs in the U.S. For instance, there was a story on NPR a few months ago about a group growing Chinese herbs in Appalachia. How have you seen that interest grow and evolve?
Yeah, that show on the radio was about a group up in Floyd County, Va., and I got them started. I went up there a couple times and brought them a lot of plants and helped them get going with it. … There is considerably more interest — lots more practitioners. There is also a lot of interest now in using Western herbs in Chinese medicine. That’s a big topic that we work on here. It means classifying Western herbs in Chinese terms — what are the actions, indication, temperature, flavor, what meridians do they go to.
So there is a lot of interest not only in growing Chinese herbs over here but also in using the herbs that we already have in a Chinese system, because Western herbal medicine doesn’t really have a good system. It just has a bunch of anecdotal evidence about how this is good for that and this is good for that. So we are involved with both of those things. …
There are a lot of Chinese herbs that are related to herbs that grow here. So that’s another connection. That has to do with geological history. There were plants all the way around the temperate zone and then the glaciers kind of chopped it up, so that now those plants only survive in eastern U.S. and eastern Asia, like ginseng is the obvious example. There isn’t any ginseng in Europe, the Midwest, the Northwest. But there is also black cohosh [and] a Chinese black cohosh. There’s a Chinese [variety of] Solomon’s seal. Those are in the tonic categories. There is Chinese wild yam, so many of the plants that grow here have a closely related Chinese herb, so that’s another big interest of mine.
Obviously, Chinese herbalism is a passion of yours. Why should other people care about growing Chinese herbs in this country?
They’re some of the most important health-promoting plants on the planet. Like dang gui — the Chinese herb angelica — is probably the most powerful herb for regulating the menstrual cycle of anything growing. So yeah, I think we definitely want to be growing them and having good-quality, fresh, organically grown [herbs]. That’s another issue with herbs from China. You never know how long they’ve been sitting in a warehouse somewhere — for two or three years — and then the growers, because they know the stuff isn’t going to be sold right away necessarily, they dump all these preservatives onto [them] just to keep [the products] in good shape while [they] sit around.
It’s been said that Western North Carolina is a prime spot for growing Chinese herbs compared with other places in the U.S. Why is that?
It’s a similar bioclimate. … It’s just very similar between the eastern United States and eastern Asia. It’s the same latitude. You’ve got an ocean on the east and big land mass on the west, so it’s just very parallel. … The climate is very similar. You can’t grow all the Chinese herbs … because they come from Mongolia all the way down to the Phillipines, so no one space is going to be optimal. But if you had to pick one place, this would probably be as good as any. [And] we can get much better quality growing them here.
Mountain Gardens is currently taking applications for summer apprentices at Mountain Gardens, where Hollis and his team make herbal tinctures, salves, linaments, pills and more. The public is invited to attend workshops from April-October. Learn more at mountaingardensherbs.com.