Astragalus has been growing in our gardens for well over twenty years now. It is quite hardy and withstands even the coldest Maine winters. It grows into a large bush, is quite feathery, bright green and very pretty looking, with dainty, fan-like pale yellow flowers in mid to late summer.
When closely observing nature, you will notice that the gifts of a plant make themselves known to you in the manner in which the plant grows, the conditions it requires and its degree of hardiness. When a plant thrives no matter what, take a deeper look and you may find that it will help you to do the same. Astragalus strikes me as such a plant. Rugged, resilient, strong, powerful, long-lived, graceful and elegant.
Astragalus is a tonic, a restorative food and a potent medicine plant. The Chinese have been using astragalus to strengthen immunity for many centuries. They say it “strengthens the exterior,” or protects against illness. Known as Huang-qi, astragalus is written about in the 2,000-year-old Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, and is still considered to be one of the superior tonic roots in traditional Chinese medicine. Its name literally means yellow, referring to the inside of the root, and leader, referring to its potency. Mildly sweet, moistening, slightly warm and stimulating, astragalus invigorates vital energy. It is nourishing and restorative, strengthens resistance, restores damaged immunity, promotes tissue regeneration, is cancer inhibiting, antiviral, adaptogenic, protects and strengthens the heart and the liver, is tonic to the lungs and enhances digestion.
Many scientific studies have verified its immune-enhancing action. Astragalus is a powerful “non-specific” immune system modulator. Instead of activating our defense system against a specific disease organism, astragalus deeply nourishes immunity by increasing the numbers and activity of roving white blood cells, the macrophages. Macrophages are the cells that T-lymphocytes call to come engulf invading organisms. “Yo, macrophages, over here!” Astragalus engages and activates every phase of our immune system into heightened activity. In one study, the activity of macrophages was significantly enhanced within six hours of treatment with astragalus and remained so for the next seventy-two hours.
In Traditional Chinese medicine the astragalus roots are said to tonify the spleen, blood and chi. They are used as a tonic for the lungs, for those with pulmonary disease, frequent colds, shortness of breath and heart palpitations. Astragalus is also prescribed for those who suffer from fatigue from any source, chronic nephritis, night sweats, prolapsed uterus or rectum. Its tissue regenerating and anti-inflammatory abilities make astragalus an excellent ally to heal chronic ulcerations and persistent external infections, as well as to heal hard-to-heal sores and wounds and to drain boils and draw out pus. Astragalus root processed in honey is specific against fatigue, used to boost vital energy, to nourish the blood, and also against incontinence, bloody urine or diarrhea.
A study at the University of Texas Medical Center in Houston compared damaged immune cells from cancer patients to healthy cells. Astragalus restored the function of the cancer patients’ damaged immune cells, in some cases surpassing the health and activity of the cells from healthy individuals. The extract of astragalus also significantly inhibited the growth of tumor cells in mice, especially when combined with lovage, Levisticum officinale (cousin of angelica). According to a study reported in Phytotherapy Research, astragalus appears to restore immunocompetence and is potentially beneficial for cancer patients as well as those suffering with AIDS. It increases the number of stem cells present in the bone marrow and lymph tissue and stimulates their differentiation into immune competent cells, which are then released into the tissues, according to one study reported in the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
A Chinese Qi and blood tonic formula for lowering blood lipids combines astragalus with Baltic amber, pearl and American ginseng, and is used as an anti-aging formulation and as a treatment to aid recovery for cancer patients after undergoing standard medical therapies. Astragalus also stimulates the body’s natural production of interferon, increases its effectiveness in treating disease, and increased the lifespan of human cells in culture.
Astragalus protects adrenal cortical function while undergoing chemotherapy or radiation and helps modify the gastrointestinal toxicity in patients receiving these therapies. Chinese doctors use astragalus against chronic hepatitis, and many studies have demonstrated that astragalus protects the liver against liver-toxic drugs and anti-cancer compounds commonly used in chemotherapy, such as stilbenemide. When used as an adjunct to conventional cancer treatments, astragalus appears to increase survival rates, endurance and to be strongly liver protective. Astragalus helps lower blood pressure, due to its ability to dilate blood vessels, and protects the heart. Scientists in the Soviet Union have shown that astragalus protects the heart muscle from damage caused by oxygen deprivation and heart attack.
According to reports in the Chinese Medical Journal, doctors at the Shanghai Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases found that astragalus showed significant activity against Coxsackie B virus, which can cause an infection of the heart called Coxsackie B viral myocarditis, for which no effective treatment exists. In a follow-up study, astragalus helped maintain regular heart rhythms and beating frequency and Coxsackie B patients showed far less damage from the viral infection (as much as 85%).
In Chinese medicine, astragalus is often combined with codonopsis. This compound is said to strengthen the heart and increase the vital energy while invigorating the circulation of blood throughout the body. It is also traditionally combined with ginseng and used as a tonic against fatigue; chronic tiredness; lack of energy, enthusiasm or appetite; and to ease “spontaneous perspiration," or hot flashes.
Japanese physicians use astragalus in combination with other herbs to treat cerebral vascular disease. According to a research paper published by Zhang in 1990, adolescent brain dysfunction was diminished more with a Traditional Chinese Medicine formula containing astragalus combined with codonopsis than with Ritalin. Integrating astragalus root into your diet, especially during the winter months, as the Asians have been doing for years, turns out to be a good idea. Scientists demonstrated that astragalus will not only prevent colds, but cut their duration in half.
Astragalus possesses strong antiviral properties. Astragalus has been safely used throughout Asia for thousands of years. The Chinese typically slice astragalus roots and add them, along with other vegetables, to chicken broth to create a nourishing tonic soup. Discard the root after cooking, and consume the broth. No toxicity from the use of astragalus has ever been shown in the millennia of its use in China.
Flower Essence Astragalus flower essence puts us in touch with our true spiritual purpose and aligns us with its practice.
Magical Lore A root in your magical bag enhances spiritual strength.
Culture The genus Astragalus is the largest group of flowering plants, with over 2,000 species, most of which are found in the northern temperate regions. Plants in this genus are amazingly diverse - some are nourishing and medicinal, some useful as raw materials, and others, such as the locoweeds, are toxic. Astragalus membranaceus grows in the wild along the edges of woodlands, in thickets, open woods and grasslands. It is native to the Northeastern regions of China, but grows excellently in our Maine soils and temperatures, as do most Chinese medicinal plants we’ve attempted to grow thus far.
Our astragalus plants appreciate deep, well-drained, alkaline soil. The seeds are easily gathered and when planted in the fall do not require soaking. They will germinate the following spring as soon as conditions are right. The seeds have a hard seed coat, and you can nick the covering with a file and/or soak the seed overnight to hasten germination in spring. Give each plant plenty of room, as much as a foot all around, and harvest after the fourth or fifth year of growth. Astragalus is a nitrogen fixer, so benefits the soil as well as other plants growing in its vicinity. The roots grow horizontally and help to break up the soil and create a beautiful planting environment for the next plants to use that bed. We use freshly dug or dried root for our tinctures, fresh roots to make an infused honey and dried roots for infusions, syrups and soups. We gather the ripening seeds in fall and lay them out on screens to dry in their bean-like sheaths, for planting the following spring.
Addendum: Since astragalus is so much about protecting the body…through its influence on our immune system, and by its benefits to brain, heart, lungs, stomach and liver, the first deity association it suggests to me is Saint Michael the archangel, who as we spoke of last week, is the ultimate protector. Here is a traditional prayer to Saint Michael:
Saint Michael above me, Saint Michael below me, Saint Michael to my left, Saint Michael to my right, Saint Michael in front of me, Saint Michael behind me, Saint Michael all around me. Saint Michael, please protect me. Amen
And this is another healing prayer I want to share with you in two versions: one to say when you are asking for healing for yourself, before a medical visit, procedure or surgery and the other to invoke assistance for another when you are in the role of healer/community herbalist/benedetta/
Great Mother, I pray that you will comfort me in my suffering, lend skill to the hands of my healers, and bless the herbs used in my remedy. Give me such confidence in the power of your grace, that even when I am afraid, I may put my whole trust in your healing grace. Amen