Nature: sweet, warm
Enters: Liver, Kidney, Large Intestine
Actions: Tonifies kidney Yang; moistens the large intestine, promotes bowel movement; nourishes blood and Jing; strengthens the sinews.
• Kidney Yang and Jing deficiency: infertility, impotence, spermatorrhea, weakness of the lumbar region and knees, weakness of the tendons and bones, frequent urination.
• Large intestine dryness (Qi and blood deficiency): constipation.
• Jing and blood deficiency: weakness of the sinews, motor impairment, paralysis, muscular atrophy.
• Doctrine of signatures: for impotence – see morphology of the stem.
• Stronger than Rou cong rong at tonifying kidney Yang, but weaker at moistening the large intestine and promoting bowel movement.
SD: Cynomorium is known in Chinese as suoyang, which is based on the herb’s medicinal effects, “locking the yang.” It is obtained mainly from the East Asian species, Cynomorium songaricum, though the similar C. coccineum is sometimes utilized as a substitute (and is used in other countries, from Europe to Central Asia, where it is the native species). The plant harvested for Chinese medicine grows at high altitude, mainly in Inner Mongolia, Qinghai, Gansu, and Tibet. It is used to tonify the yang (treat impotence and backache), strengthen the tendons, and nourish the blood to alleviate the blood-deficiency type of constipation (typically occurring with old age).
The value of cynomorium was depicted similarly in many cultures. In 16th century Europe, it was known as the Maltese mushroom, though it is not a true fungus. The plant was so highly regarded that the Knights of Malta often sent samples of it to European monarchs as presents. To protect the so-called Fungus Rock, where cynomorium was abundant, the grandmaster posted guards around the area and ordered the sides of the outcropping to be rendered smooth to eliminate any footholds and prevent access from the sea. The rock, rising to a sheer height of 60 meters (200 feet) from the rough sea, became virtually inaccessible. As an explanation of its uses by the doctrine of signatures, since the plant appears reddish-brown, and becomes darker upon drying, herbalists thought it would be useful to treat ailments of the blood. On top of that, the phallic shape indicated the plant could also be used to treat sexual problems. The dried spikes were used by the Crusader Knights after their battles to recover strength. In Saudi Arabia, the plant is called tarthuth, and is recognized to have the same properties mentioned above, as well as many others, including treatment of digestive disorders and ulcers (see Appendix for story).
Cynomorium is parasitic on the roots of salt-tolerant plants, mainly species of Atriplex, the “saltbushes” (for C. coccineum) and on Nitraria sibirica (for C. songaricum). The plant has no chlorophyll; the fleshy red stems or spikes have tiny scarlet flowers. Its active constituents have not been fully analyzed, but cynomorium is known to contain anthocyanic glycosides, triterpene saponins, and lignans. Pharmacology experiments are in the early stage, with attempts to demonstrate a hormonal effect that would explain its use in impotence (its current main application in commercial products), as well as findings that the herb extracts inhibits HIV, lower blood pressure, and improve blood flow in laboratory experiments.
Cynomorium, which has a pleasant, sweet taste when raw, has long been known as a “famine food,” that is, something not frequently eaten, but nourishing enough to help people survive when the standard foods are insufficient. In fact, a city in China is named for cynomorium because of this benefit. The city is near Anxi (in today’s Gansu Province), which lies at the center of the ancient Silk Road, and was long considered as the key to the West. During the Tang Dynasty, Anxi was established as a military base to gain control over Middle Asia. About 40 miles away was an old Han Dynasty town called Kugucheng, also of strategic military importance. Numerous walls and gates were set up to form a line of defense. During the Tang dynasty, the famous general Xue Rengui and his army were besieged in the Anxi area while on the way to conquer the West. The soldiers had used up all their supplies and they had no hope of assistance. Yet, they were able to survive by eating suoyang, and after that the city was renamed as Suoyang.
Cynomorium didn’t enter into the Materia Medica until Zhu Danxi of the Yuan Dynasty period mentioned it in his Bencao Yanyi Buyi (Supplement and Expansion of Materia Medica, 1347). The Yuan Dynasty, which was the time of Mongolian rule, introduced several plants from the Mongolian area, including this one. Zhu Danxi also offered a formula with cynomorium that became quite famous, Huqian Wan (Hidden Tiger Pills), used for impotence and/or for weakness and atrophy of the legs. The formula is named for the tiger in crouched position, ready to spring. In order to attain that position (which is also replicated in Gong Fu with the “crouching tiger” technique), one must have great strength in the tendons, ligaments, and muscles of the legs. This strengthening is sometimes referred to as “hardening” of yin (substance of the body); but that doesn’t necessarily indicate lack of flexibility. The weak leg disorders were first described in the Neijing Suwen (ca. 100 A.D.), in the chapter on wei syndrome, which is translated as atrophy or wilting syndrome. There were five types of atrophy listed, associated with each of the five organs. The disorder was thought to derive from heat or damp-heat damaging the yin.
Huqian Wan is comprised of anemarrhena, phellodendron, cooked rehmannia, tortoise shell, tiger’s bone (no longer used), peony, citrus, and dry ginger; sometimes cistanche (another parasitic desert plant) is added. The formula was recently described by Kong Lingqi (Resolutely Upholding the Concept of Hardening the Kidneys Method, by Kong Lingqi, Sichuan Chinese Medicine, 1998 (6): 8-9, translated by Bob Flaws, and edited here):
The Suwen chapter titled Treatise on Wilting says, ‘The ancestral sinews rule the binding of the bones and the disinhibition of the joints.’ If damp heat invades and assails the muscles and flesh and sinews and bones, the qi and blood will not move. The sinews will become slack and not pulled together and, hence, will be useless. If severe, the liver and kidneys will become debilitated and consumed and the ancestral sinews will cease their duty. Master Ye Tianshi, in his Guide to Clinical Conditions & Case Histories chapter titled Vacuity Taxation highly praised Zhu Danxi’s Huqian Wan for their effect of subduing yang and hardening yin. These pills use phellodendron and anemarrhena’s bitterness to harden yin. This causes the source to be cleared and flow to be cleaned. Atractylodes (cangzhu) and coix (yiyiren) dispel dampness. Cistanche (roucongrong), cynomorium (suoyang), achyranthes (niuxi), and tiger bone (hugu) strengthen the sinews and bones. Peony (baishao) and chaenomeles (mugua) emolliate the sinews and relax tension. Cooked rehmannia (shudi) and tortoise shell (guiban) enrich yin and boost the marrow. Thus damp heat is discharged and transformed, yin essence is subdued and astringed, the ancestral sinews are hardened and strengthened, and the feet are able to walk.
Because of these uses, the formula has been suggested by Chinese clinicians as a possible therapy for paralytic disorders, such as multiple sclerosis and ALS.