I decided that we’d had enough cool evenings that it was time to dig up some astragalus root this week. Well it was actually my husband who dug it up. He’s been promoted to full apprentice status around here. I set aside a good size chunk to shred and dry and roast with honey and then chopped up the rest to make astragalus broth for pressure canning. Both recipes are in the article below.
If you have read my friend Rosalee’s book Alchemy of Herbs, you know I am a large fan of astragalus in a preventative diet. As someone with SLE, I think that concerns about prophylactic use provoking the immune response are overstated, but of course that is an individual response and anyone with an autoimmune disorder should be working with a professional when using herbs.
The following is excerpted from my article on the history of Astragalus published in Natural Herbal Living Magazine. Amanda just updated to a brand new website so be sure to check it out.
The Greeks utilized many members of the Astragalus genus. In fact the genus is named after “Astragalos,” as it was called in Ancient Greek texts. A. glycyphyllos (milk vetch) and the root was used to staunch “flowing bowels” and to “induce urine.”[ii] Among other members of the genus written about by Dioscorides is Tragakanthe (A. tragacantha), which has since assumed the common name “goats-thorn.” Dioscorides called it a broad, woody root, used for coughs, “pain of the kidneys and erosion of the bladder.”[iii]
The Anglo Saxon manuscripts mention vetch but were most likely referring to Vicia cracca (cow vetch) or Vicia sativa (bean vetch), which are not members of the Astragalus genus but are still in the Fabaceae family.[iv] This seems to have continued for some time. Thomas Hill’s early treatise on English gardening refers to only the Vicia genus[v] and Culpeper mentions Vicia hirsute (common black vetch).[vi] Many species of astragalus are referred to by the common name of milk vetch, likely due to the fact that it was known to increase the milk supply in livestock.[vii]
Various species of astragalus most notably A. gummifer and A. tragacantha have historically been slashed to obtain the gummy exudate tragacanth which is mentioned in Culpeper. Gum tragacanth is used as an emulsifying agent in foods and cosmetics. It can be made at home if you have a dehydrator.
By far the richest history of Astragalus membranaceus medicinal use comes from Chinese texts, which is traced back to Emperor Shen Nong. Known as the “Divine Farmer,” Shen Nong lived around 2800 BCE. The Shi pen mentions that he experimented with 365 medicinal herbs during his lifetime and eventually turned green and died from an overdose.
A manuscript, known as the Shen nung Pen Ts’ao king is attributed to him, but it is not documented until T’ao Hung king wrote it down with his own addendum in approximately 500CE.[ix] This was probably based on oral healing traditions passed down through the centuries.
Astragalus’ Chinese name Huang Qi translates as “yellow leader,” due to the yellow color of the root and its importance in many formulas including Huang Qi Jian Zhong Tang or “Astragalus Strengthening the Center Decoction.”
Huang Qi Jian Zhong Tang Formula[x]
This decoction formula is known for warming and tonifying the “center” organs – the spleen and stomach which is believed to replenish the vital life source that circulates throughout the body which is referred to in Chinese medicine as Qi. [This is the Pneuma for all my Greek medicine people].
9 g Huang Qi (Radix Astragali membranacei) Astragalus Root
18 g Bai Shao (Radix Paeoniae albae) White Peony Root
9 g Gui Zhi (Ramulus Cinnamomi cassiae) Cinnamon
6 g Zhi Gan Cao Radix (Glycyrrhizae uralensis praeparata) Licorice Root
10 g Sheng Jiang Rhizoma (Zingiberis officinalis recens) Ginger
12 Da Zao (Fructus Ziziphi jujubae)* Jujube Fruit
30 g Yí Táng (Saccharum granorum) Barley Malt
Combine all ingredients in a large stockpot with at least 2 quarts of water [I like to start with more] and simmer until the liquid is reduced to a quart.
Vegetarian Astragalus Stock
I rarely go to all that trouble, I think Chinese formulations are a bit much. The primary use for astragalus in Chinese culture seems to be as a medicinal and culinary tonic herb. It is a key ingredient in many soups that are considered tonic in nature. There are many, many recipes for basic stocks, but the following recipe is my own that I have settled on after much experimentation. You can use this as stock in for any soup or when cooking rice.
1 whole leek chopped
6 cloves of garlic
4 dried mushrooms of your choice
1 C. dried astragalus root
1 C. mung bean sprouts
1 Tbsp. gluten free tamari sauce
Put all these ingredients in a large stock pot or crock pot and cover with 15 cups of filtered water. You can also add marrow bones (roasted at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes) or chicken livers, if you want a meat component. This probably renders the stock more blood-building.
Simmer until the liquid has reduced by a third, or until it looks like you have about 10 cups left.
Honey-Fried Huang Qi
Decoctions made from honey-fried Huang Qi are considered useful in treating Spleen and Lung Qi deficiencies and is used to address deficiency imbalances such as “chronic cases of fatigue, diarrhea, organ prolapse ”[xi] Because I can never leave a recipe alone, I add corrigent herbs to my honey-fried Huang Qi.
30 g honey
5 g cinnamon chips
100 g dried astragalus, shredded root works best
Weigh out the ingredients using the metric setting on a kitchen scale.
Mix and stir-fry in a bit of sesame oil, enough to lightly coat the bottom of the pan.
Fry over low heat until the herb turns brown and is no longer sticky to the touch.
[i] Caldecott, T. (2006). Ayurveda: The Divine Science of Life. Philadelphia: Elsevier Health Sciences. [ii] Dioscorides. (60AD). De materia medica. - five books in one volume: A new English translation. (Osbaldeston, T, Trans.). Johannesburg: IBIDIS Press. pp. 603. [iii] Ibid,pp. 388. [iv] Pollington, S. (2008). Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing. Cambridgeshire: Anglo-Saxon Books. [v] Hill, Thomas. 1577. The Gardener’s Labyrinth. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. [vi] Culpeper, Nicholas. 1652. The English Physician: OR AN Astrologo-Physical Discourse of the Vulgar Herbs of This Nation. London: Commonwealth of England. [vii] Moloney, M. F. (1919). Irish ethno-botany and the evolution of medicine in Ireland. Dublin: M.H. Gill. [viii] Culpeper, Nicholas. 1652. The English Physician: OR AN Astrologo-Physical Discourse of the Vulgar Herbs of This Nation. London: Commonwealth of England [ix] E. Bret-Schneider. (1882). Botanicon Sinicum: Notes on Chinese Botany from Native and Western Sources. Journal of the North-China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, XVI(1), 18–230. [x] Maciocia, G. (1994). The Practice of Chinese Medicine: The Treatment of Diseases with Acupuncture and Chinese Herbs. London: Churchill Livingstone. pp. 714. [xi] Chen, J. K., & Chen, T. T. (2004). Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology. Art of Medicine Press. pp. 849.