The worldwide demand for traditional Chinese medicine has soared so much so that it puts a strain on the plants needed. The expert knowledge needed to cultivate the plants effectively, and to identify the correct species, is hard to find outside of China.
Dr. Christine Leon, medical botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew, London, has studied the issue for many years, “There are many species of fritillary, or fritillaria as they’re known botanically, in China that are used medicinally. Their bulbs are very popular in cough mixtures and for treating chronic bronchitis in particular and they’re very well established medicines in this (Chinese) medical system. They’re so effective that the demand for them sadly, is now so high that many look-a-like substitutes are being used, and because the majority of these fritillaria species are wild harvested, there’s a demand and supply problem. So many of these are being substituted with the bulbs of other fritillaries that perhaps are less effective, or may indeed have no actual activity at all and as demand rises, as it has over the last few decades internationally, this is putting increasing pressure particularly on the wild populations of fritillaries and indeed many other species of Chinese medicinal plant.”
Many dealing in Chinese medicinal plants do not have the necessary skills to judge the quality or identify the species of plant and could be using cheap substitutes unknowingly.
Even if the plant species is correct, the plants have different levels of efficacy that only skilled cultivators can identify. Dr. Leon has created a reference book on Chinese herb identification after 16 years of research by her and others.