As a medicine hunter, I seek natural, plant-based remedies of high value to health and help to make them more widely distributed and better known. My research generally takes place in faraway locales, ranging from Siberia to the South Pacific. In those areas I gain an understanding of traditional medicines, thanks to generous sharing of time and expertise on the part of local experts. Indigenous natives, harvesters, cultivators, herbal healers, traders, processors, botanists, chemists and physicians contribute to my understanding of a plant, its place in culture and its known health benefits. I have chronicled some of my work in various books, including Kava, Medicine Hunting In Paradise(Park Street Press), Tales From The Medicine Trail (Rodale) and Psyche Delicacies (Rodale). My book, Hot Plants (St. Martin's Press), focuses on my work with effective sex-enhancing botanicals around the world.
I envision a future era of health care, in which people come before profits and in which the U.S. embraces WHO's recommendation that each nation will create a category called traditional medicines. I envision a time when U.S. health officials will acknowledge the five billion people in the world who utilize plants as primary medicines. I imagine a future when the environment will be better preserved for its importance to planetary and human health, and as a source of as yet undiscovered medicines. And I imagine a time when the indigenous people who cultivate, harvest, collect and prepare the herbs we use will be paid fairly, and will share in the profits and technologies that arise with botanical success. I am committed to those outcomes.
In this article, I could tell you stories of various countries and plants. But I am choosing instead to focus an exciting new discovery, a plant whose folk name is LifeFlower, a true lifesaving botanical.
In the spring of 2003, I met a woman named Joy Pan, whose company Farlong holds the U.S. distribution rights for an extract of Lifeflower, Erigeron breviscapus, which is used in China to treat stroke patients. Joy provided me with a toxicity report, a positive mouse memory study, a positive human memory study, a group of study abstracts and results of an 18,000 patient study conducted in 21 Chinese hospitals showing that LifeFlower helps to restore muscular control and overall function in a high percentage of stroke patients.
The intriguing information suggested that LifeFlower might be one of those few Holy Grail plants, a true lifesaving remedy, of potential value to vast millions of people. In the U.S. alone, an estimated half million people suffer strokes annually, 30 percent of which result in death. If a plant demonstrated significant benefits against this killer, it would be a miracle medicine.
In the 1960s Chairman Mao Tse Tung made an appeal to the Chinese people to share any information they had on traditional medicines. An old traditional medicinal text entitled Dian Nong Ben Cao, published in the Han language, listed the use of Erigeron breviscapusfor stroke. Subsequent pharmacological investigation of the plant confirmed its uses in cerebrovascular therapy.
A Remarkable Plant
On July 4, 2002, the U.S. Patent Office granted a patent to Farlong International in California for a proprietary extract of Erigeron breviscapus and an active compound called breviscapinum. The patent cited the following findings: ". . .breviscapinum increases cerebral blood flow for significantly decreasing cerebrovascular resistance; raises permeability of blood brain barrier, increases nutritional blood flow of myocardium; raises immune function of body macrophage cell and counteraction against blood and oxygen depletion induced by hypophyseal pituitrin and thrombocyte agglutination induced by adenosine diphespate inhibiting internal thrombosis and promoting activity of cellulose dissolution; increases peripheral and coronary blood flow, effective for sequelas induced by cerebrovascular accident: palsy, coronary heart disease and angina pectoris."
Believing that LifeFlower warranted more investigation, I spoke with Joy, who arranged a trip to Yunnan, China, for me to see the LifeFlower situation for myself.
When I arrived in Kunming, the provincial capitol of Yunnan, I met with Joy and several other people who would be part of our group for the entire project. In the city of Gejiu we toured SuperTrack Bio-Pharmaceutical. Company executives showed us their manufacturing facility, where LifeFlower is transformed from a plant to an injectable dosage form designed to save lives. Each injectable ampule contains 10 milligrams of extract. The extraction and manufacturing are conducted under sterile pharmaceutical conditions, using highly sophisticated processing technology. The LifeFlower ampules are used in hospitals throughout the country to treat stroke patients. According to the leaders at SuperTrack, the plant is restoring many thousands of stroke patients back to healthy function.
SuperTrack also manufactures tablets of LifeFlower, each of which contains 20 milligrams of extract. The daily recommended dose is six tablets. A Mr. Jin told us, "The injection is for acute cases, but the tablet form is also highly beneficial to the brain."
Outside of Gejiu in Mile, we traveled roads that led us up into rough terrain and into progressively higher mountains. There our group toured a remarkably well-tended 3,000-acre LifeFlower plantation. Vast rows of the plant grew at the 2000-meter altitude, and the combination of altitude, moisture and just the right amount of sun kept them healthy. Most were without flowers, but in one section, a great many plants were in bloom. Thus we were able to see the plant, from the smallest specimens, to fully grown and in flower. Mr. Yu, a botanical specialist, told us that the plantation would be greatly expanded in that area. "We have worked very hard with LifeFlower. We know the conditions to grow the plant and what is needed to produce a healthy crop. This is going to be a very large agricultural product in this area."
LifeFlower is a small perennial plant with oval leaves about six inches in diameter, that lie close to the ground, with slender stalks and purple flowers. The plant grows wild in various regions of Yunnan. LifeFlower can grow between 1100-3500 meters, but grows best between 1700-2500 meters. The plant is sparse and over picking would surely endanger it.
"There are plans to grow 50,000 to 100,000 acres of LifeFlower in this region," Mr. Guan of SuperTrack explained. "And still, that will not be enough to meet the needs of all people who could benefit from this medicine." The plant is started from seed. After three months, seedlings are transplanted from shaded nurseries to larger fields. LifeFlower takes one year to mature. It is then harvested, dried and cleaned. After that, the plant undergoes a patented extraction process which yields breviscapinum, the agent believed to be responsible for its protective and healing activity. According to Mr. Guan, one acre of LifeFlower yields 150 kilograms of the dried plant. One hundred kilograms of the dried plant will yield only one kilogram of the final extract. One kilogram of extract will yield 100,000 injectable doses.
The Center of LifeFlower Research
In Kunming we made our way to the state-of-the-art Kunming Institute of Botany. There a large and dedicated team of scientists investigates the properties and uses of a plethora of beneficial plants. At the forefront of much of this research is Professor Han Dong Sun. Along with Deputy Director Li De Zhu, Professor Sun explained to us some of the Institute's findings on Erigeron breviscapus.
"This is a very important medicine," Professor Sun explained. "Erigeron breviscapus is highly beneficial in the treatment of cerebrovascular disease. The whole herb is used to treat a variety of paralysis and the problems that arise from that condition." Having worked on Erigeron breviscapus for over 10 years, Professor Sun is one of the best-informed people about the plant. He believes that though the agent breviscapinum may play a major role in the plant's activity, other synergistic compounds are highly important for maximum efficacy.
Professor Sun informed us that there is more science on the oral use of Erigeron breviscapus than on the injectable form. "Both forms of the plant extract are used in clinical settings," he explained. Professor Sun agreed that translation of Chinese findings is an essential next step to bring more complete information on this medicinal plant to the international research community.
Summing Up the Knowledge
In China, thousands of stroke patients each year are treated with LifeFlower, either in tablet or injectable form. According to the studies I have seen so far, treatment of paralysis due to stroke is at least somewhat successful in over 80 percent of cases. Even if positive results were half that, LifeFlower would still be a medical miracle.
The science on LifeFlower shows that the plant improves circulation in the brain and enhances cerebral function. Studies reveal that LifeFlower is a unique plant possessing protective and restorative properties. Considering the great number of people who need brain enhancement of these kinds, LifeFlower has the potential to become one of the most important and widely used plant-derived medicines of all time. Translation of existing science, plus expanding availability of this plant, may help to save many lives.