Medical Ethnobotany of Naxi Homegardens

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Comparative homegarden medical ethnobotany of Naxi healers and farmers in Northwestern Yunnan, China

Yang L, Ahmed S, Stepp JR, Mi K, Zhao Y, Ma J, Liang C, Pei S, Huai H, Xu G, Hamilton AC, Yang ZW, Xue D
J Ethnobiol Ethnomed. 2014 Jan 10;10:6
PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3907136

Lijiang in Yunnan Province
Lijiang in Yunnan Province [source: Lincun, Wikimedia Commons]
Lixin Yang of Minzu University, with colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Montana State University, University of Florida, College of Forestry and Vocational Technology in Yunnan, Southwest Forestry University (Bailongshi) and Yangzhou University, documented medicinal plant species in homegardens of healers and farmers and associated ethnomedical knowledge in two Naxi (Nakhi, 纳西族, 納西族, Nàxī zú) communities in Lijiang Prefecture in Northwest Yunnan Province of China.

From the background:

“The ethnomedical systems of China’s numerous socio-linguistic groups play a crucial role for community health in the country’s indigenous areas, many of which are located in habitats of high biodiversity. China’s 55 minority socio-linguistic groups are recognized to utilize more species of medicinal plants compared to the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) system of the dominant Han population…. The gathering of medicinal plants also provides an important livelihood activity for many indigenous communities in China.

“China’s Northwest Yunnan Province is recognized for its rich biodiversity and cultural history associated with the management and utilization of medicinal plants. NW Yunnan is located in the Three Parallel Rivers region and is listed as a World Natural and Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO, making it global priority site for biodiversity conservation. The region’s exceptional altitudinal range, topography and climatic variability have fostered centers of plant species endemism. NW Yunnan harbors over 3,500 endemic plant species, many of which are utilized by local communities including the Naxi.

“The Naxi are a Burmo-Naxi-Lolo sociolinguistic sub-group of the Tibeto-Burman group within the Sino-Tibetan family. They primarily inhabit the highlands of Lijiang Naxi Autonomous Region in the eastern Himalaya of China’s Northwest Yunnan Province with a population of approximately 300,000. Historically, the Naxi relied on an indigenous system of Bon practice to treat health conditions primarily through consultation with local shaman priests known as Dongba (Dto’mba) as well as through herbal healers and self-care. The traditional Bon practice is founded on animist and shamanistic traditions with links to pre-Buddhist and Buddhist Tibetan practice and many of these traditions remain through the world’s only remaining pictographic writing system.”

Surveying local healers and farmer households, the team identified 106 medicinal plants cultivated in Naxi homegardens, which they classified into medical condition groupings based on systems of the body, e.g., inflammation, circulatory system disorders, nervous system disorders, detoxification, digestive system disorders, muscular-skeletal system disorders, genitourinary system disorders, skin conditions, respiratory system disorders, and cold and flu.

Fallopia multiflora
Fallopia multiflora [source: Doronenko, Wikimedia Commons]
The most frequently inventoried species of medicinal plants included Aconitum carmichaeli, Aucklandia lappa, Chaenomeles sinensis, Fallopia multiflora, Foeniculum vulgare, Gentiana robusta, Lactuca sativa, Ligusticum chuanxiong, Mentha spicata, Paeonia delavayi, Paris polyphylla, Platycodon grandiflorus, Prinsepia utilis and Zanthoxylum bungenum.

The authors found that healers maintained greater medicinal plant species richness in their homegardens compared to farmers, and had greater knowledge of medicinal functions of plants. Healers cultivated medicinal plants primarily for healing whereas farmers cultivated medicinal plants for commercialization and household healthcare. They argue that both types of homegardens are “ecologically and culturally important spaces for the transmission and preservation of ethnomedical knowledge that support community wellbeing and livelihoods”:

“Naxi homegardens provide in situ conservation spaces for medicinal plant germplasm as well as a shelter for native, rare and endangered plants. Medicinal plants maintained within Naxi homegardens are valued for diverse properties including edible, economic and ornamental properties. In addition, Naxi homegardens provide important habitats for the introduction and domestication for wild medicinal plants and as a nursery for plant propagation. These ecologically and culturally important spaces for the transmission and preservation of ethnomedical knowledge that support community wellbeing and livelihoods are at risk with rapid socio-economic, policy, land use and environmental changes in China. Conservation efforts and evidence-based policies are necessary to preserve the ecological and cultural base that maintains medicinal plant use and community wellbeing by both healers and farmers in Naxi homegardens. Economic incentives provided by markets are one way to ensure the protection of ethnomedical plant knowledge in Naxi communities. Future studies can shed insight on the success of such policies and market-based conservation efforts.”

Read the complete article at PubMed Central.

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