Let me introduce to to a friend of the earth. His hands are long and green, his flowers bright, and deep, deep within the sandy earth–this is where his soft roots lay.
His name: In Chinese he is known as Huang qi (“yellow leader”), though to English speakers he is recognizable by a common name, milk-vetch root, or in the world of medicines as Astragalus membranaceous. In Chinese medicine, Huang qi is prepared as a decoction (cooking the herb in boiling water), either alone or with other herbs.
sweet bitter opening expanding – allows one to see
the glimmer of the stars
earthy strong of breath warming
the nose passages
– brightens, raises the yang –
Huang qi is known as a tonic herb, and is recognized as the “leader of the tonics.” In effect, it works to raise the qi (giving a bright, clear sensation), and is known to safeguard and support normal qi. It is gentle, not forceful, and can be taken over long periods of time.
oh so gentle
light in my head
in my throat
– decoction: light yellow; root: light yellow –
Indications and Constitutional Type
The huang qi presentation includes spontaneous sweating, and/or night sweats with edema. The body may feel heavy, or uncoordinated. May also have cold limbs, aversion to wind, susceptibility to catching cold, scanty urination, lower leg edema. Huang qi is also indicated for enduring festering sores and abcesses, as huang qi treats fluids in the outer muscle layer.
A person who embodies the huang qi constitutional type will have soft, relaxed musculature, and edema or external swelling. Their complexion will be lusterless, and may be yellowish or pale. They sweat easily and have an aversion to wind. They may have a tendency to catch colds, or have allergies, coughs, or wheezing. They will show a poor appetite, possibly with abdominal distention & fullness, and may have a tendency for numbness in their hands & feet.
By observing this plant as a being, we can learn some relevant details that shed some light on his medicinal use:
1. Huang qi prefers dry, sandy soil and is tolerant of droughts.
The dry, sandy soil that huang qi prefers can be considered more yang than yin–it is less dense, less fertile, and less moist, all of which, in the positive, are yin (feminine) characteristics. And indeed, in the medical literature, huang qi has been described as a “drug of pure yang,” as it raises the qi.
2. Huang qi grows a taproot that penetrates deep into the surface of the earth.
A deep root like this is where a plant stores its reserves, putting by extra nourishment so that it may weather whatever will come. In its medicinal use, huang qi has a similar nourishing quality, and is used to supplement conditions of deficiency, such as wasting & thirsting disorder, and to treat those with a poor appetite. Huang qi is also known to tonify the Spleen.
3. Huang qi is hardy. It needs minimal input of fertilizers and can withstand strong cold spells.
Huang qi is hardy enough that it can grow in the sparse soils and extreme cold of Mongolia. It has a capacity for endurance and can guard itself well against extremes and fluctuations of the climate. When taken medicinally, huang qi exhibits similar qualities: It is known to support the wei qi, or defensive qi, supporting the body’s capacity to defend against external pathogens. It is indicated for people with a sensitivity to wind and who catch frequent colds for this reason.
4. Huang qi grows in dry climates where water is sparse.
Huang qi is also known to treat a surface layer of water (manifested in excess sweat, edema, or in pus and sores). Given that it grows in dry climates, we can see a further analogy between its growing conditions and medicinal usage it its capacity to drain and redistribute excess water.
Astragalus at play: out & about with many companions
with Shao Yao (Paeonia radix alba, white peony root)
bright fluid motion – time to ride!
I experienced an unbinding effect from this herb pairing. A brightness came into my eyes and I felt, I knew, that I wanted to move! I ended up riding my bike, taking pleasure in the swift movement of my pedals and the briskness of the night.
This pairing is indicated for vacuity cold in the middle burner, manifesting in abdominal pain and hypertonicity, along with gui zhi (cinnamon twig) and gan cao (licorice root).
with Gui Zhi (Cinnamomi ramulus, cinnamon twig)
warm sweet sparkly – I open
Something had felt trapped before, and I had little inclination to take huang qi. It just didn’t seem like it was going anywhere. This pairing changed all that. I felt the same clarity and brightness that I had before, but it was connected somehow. It felt like gui zhi opened me up and gave huang qi somewhere new to go, so that huang qi’s brightness found a new home. A sparkly combination.
This is a common combination and has several indications. With dang gui, hong hua (Carthami flos), and di long (Pheretima), this pairing is indicated for qi vacuity that causes blood to stagnate from lack of movement. With bai shao and gan cao, as mentioned above, this pairing is indicated for vacuity cold in the middle burner, manifesting in abdominal pain and hypertonicity.
with Bai Zhu (Actractylodis macrocephalae rhizoma, white atractylodes rhizome)
light but earthy
Zhu lumbers, like an Ent, while Huang qi races to the surface. I felt a little spaced out, but predominantly light in my body.
This combination supplements qi and fortifies the spleen. Also indicated, with fang feng (Saphoshnikoviae radix), for spontaneous sweating and susceptibility to external contraction.
with Wu Wei Zi (Schisandrae Fructus, Schisandra berry)
warm in my throat
I felt an inward pull from Wu wei zi’s sourness and a warmth in my lung and throat. A little moving of the stomach. I wanted to lay down.
Indicated for Lung qi vacuity with cough, panting, and shortness of breath, also combined with zi wan (Asteris radix).
with Dang Gui (Angelica sinensis radix, dong quai)
bitter bitter awful my mind –
I simply didn’t want to drink this one. It felt – clotted?
This combination supplements the qi & engenders blood. It is indicated for qi and blood depletion, manifesting in a withered-yellow facial complexion, lassitude of spirit, and a vacuous pulse.
Bensky, Dan; Clavey, Steven; and Stöger, Erich. Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica, 3rd Ed. Seattle: Eastland, 2004.
Brand, Eric and Wiseman, Nigel. Concise Chinese Materia Medica. Taos, NM: Paradigm, 2008.
Huang, Huang. trans. Max, Michael. Ten Key Formula Families in Chinese Medicine. Seattle: Eastland, 2009.
Jade Institute. “Huang Qi.” http://www.jadeinstitute.com/jade/herbal-detail-page.php?show=37&order=common_name
Schafer, Peg. The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm: A Cultivator’s Guide to Small-Scale Organic Herb Production. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2011.
Shou-zhong, Yang, trans. The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica. Boulder, CO: Blue Poppy, 2014.