Dong Quai, Angelica sinensis, is also known under many other names in its native areas, including can qui, dangdanggui, dang gui, dong quai, duong qui handanggui, hashyshat almalak, kara toki, langdu danggui, min-gui, tang-kuei, and tangkuei tân qui, and in the West as female ginseng or Chinese angelica. It is closely related to angelica, parsley, celery, carrots, and poison hemlock.
It is a fairly hardy perennial (tolerating minimum temperatures of -5º C) which is found at higher altitudes in China, Japan and Korea. It prefers moist soil and will not grow in full shade, but otherwise is not fussy about location. The part used medicinally is the root, so although it is self-fertile, as it is propagated from seed, it is necessary to grow more plants than you need in any season, so that you can keep it going while the smaller seedlings produce a good sized root, which takes 3 years.
Aesthetically speaking, it is a fragrant plant with smooth purplish stems reaching a height of around 1m (39″), a spread of 70cm (16″) and typical Umbellifer umbrels of 5-petalled flowers in early Fall, followed by winged fruits in late Summer. The roots are yellow brown and branched, about 15-25cm (6-10″) long when mature.
Cultivation and harvest
If you plan to grow your own dong quai for use on a regular basis, you need to sow enough for one year, then the same the following year and the year after that. In the third year, you can harvest the first sowing, replacing them with new seedlings, and so on. To be honest, you may prefer to buy ready prepared dong quai in the form of capsules or tincture. You can also buy dried roots in a Chinese grocers.
Sow seed as soon as it is ripe in a cold frame, making sure it has light for germination. Prick out into pots and grow on for the first Winter in the frame, then plant out in their permanent position in the Spring. You can also sow in its final position when the seed is ripe if you don’t have a cold frame.
Dig up whole 3-year-old plants in Fall and discard the tops. Clean and cut up the roots and dry in trays away from direct sunlight but with good air flow, checking and turning regularly until thoroughly dried, then transfer into an air tight container and label.
It is used as an ingredient in a tonic soup for women, and has also been used to flavour liqueurs and confectionery.
Dong quai roots contain many active constituents including terpenes, phenylpropanoids, benzenoids and coumarins. A major constituent is ligustilide, which can be up to 5% of the total.
Dong quai is one of the most popular herbs in the Chinese pharmacopoeia, and has been used for thousands of years to strengthen heart, liver, lung, spleen and kidney and as a tonic for the blood and circulation. It is known as the female ginseng and is used in a similar way and for similar purposes as ginseng in men. Regular ginseng is sometimes prescribed for women for various purposes, and similarly dong quai is sometimes prescribed for men.
In the West, dong quai is mainly used to balance hormone levels and is particularly helpful because it is antispasmodic so it reduces cramps. It’s also useful for PMS, menopause, reducing anxiety and mood swings. It can be used in both sexes to enhance fertility, as a blood tonic and to boost the immune system. Chinese women often use it as a daily tonic in the same way as ginseng is used by men.
Dosage recommendations vary, but tend to be in the range of 500-1500mg three times a day.
Contra-indications and warnings
Not suitable for children, or for use during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Women should also not use dong quai if they have breast cancer or any other oestrogen-dependent cancer, endometriosis or fibroids. Men shouldn’t use it if they have prostate cancer. Nobody should use it if they have an acute viral infection, chronic diarrhea, protein S deficiency, hemorrhagic disease, abdominal bloating, low blood pressure or if they are taking warfarin or other blood thinners including fish oils and other omega-3 supplements, Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis), feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), garlic (Allium sativum), ginger (Zingiber officinale), ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), ginseng (Panax ginseng), liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) and turmeric (Curcuma longa).
May increase skin sensitivity to sunlight and may cause dermatitis. Stop taking dong quai at least 2 weeks before a scheduled surgery.
Dong quai essential oil is used with an appropriate carrier oil for the same purposes outlined in this article. Do not swallow dong quai essential oil because it contains cancer-causing substances.
You may prefer to grow this, if at all, as a decorative plant rather than going to the trouble of processing your own dong quai. However, if you do decide to grow it for medicinal use, it’s important to ensure that you use organic methods to avoid noxious chemicals getting mixed up with your remedy. To find out more about growing organic herbs visit the Gardenzone.