Gojiberry in Tibetan Medicine
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: David Badagnani
Posted on: February 28, 2007

I see that Conrad Richter has addressed the issue of Tibetan-grown wolfberries (marketed as "goji"). As he has contact with people in the Tibetan community, I wonder if I might ask if he knows, or can find out, what this berry is called in the Tibetan language. Dr. Bradley Dobos, who sells what he purports to be Tibetan wolfberries, is claiming he began calling the berries "goji" in 1974, influenced by "various local languages and dialects," but I am not certain that this is true.

Wolfberry (Lycium spp.) is not commonly used in Tibetan medicine, so I have not found any Tibetan who is familiar with the plant. The Tibetan doctor, Tsewang J. Tsarong, does not mention any Lycium species in his "Tibetan Medicinal Plants" (Tibetan Medical Publications, Kalimpong, India, 1994) or in his "Handbook of Traditional Tibetan Drugs" (TMI, Kalimpong, 1986). The Indian scholar of Ayurvedic and Tibetan medicine, Vaidya Bhagwan Dash, also does not mention Lycium in his two books, "Materia Medica of Indo-Tibetan Medicine" (Classics India Publications, Delhi, 1989) and "Formulary of Tibetan Medicine" (CIP, Delhi, 1988).

In the traditional explanatory tantra, which is still used as a training text for Tibetan physicians, there is mention of a plant called "phang-ma" (pronounced "pang-ma"). This plant was linked to Lycium in Dr. Barry Clark’s 1995 translation of the root and explanatory tantras, "The Quintessence Tantras of Tibetan Medicine" (Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, New York, 1995). Dr. Clark is fluent in Tibetan and trained under Dr. Yeshe Donden who for many years was the Dalai Lama’s personal physician. He warns in his book that the identity of Tibetan plants is often unclear and therefore it is not always possible to make a one-to-one correspondence with modern scientific names. I suspect that part of the recent confusion about the identity of gojiberry may have had its origins with this book., so it is worth taking a moment here to examine Clark’s book a bit more.

In the chapter describing Tibetan materia medica Clark presents the root and explanatory tantras in a interpolated manner to make things clearer to Western readers. Under "phang-ma" he translates the root text (with the explanatory text within the square brackets) as:

"[has thin leaves and a pale trunk from which the branches protrude horizontally. It has a sweet-tasting reddish-brown] seed, [which is of two types, black and white, and] cures heart fevers and gynecological disorders."

For "phang-ma" Clark lists four possible species: Eleagnus pungens, Lycium barbarum, Lycium chinense, and Leonurus heterophyllus, all of which loosely fit the description in the tantras. As he says in his introduction, "Often more than one identification is available and sometimes the same name refers to different plants growing in unrelated geographical locations. Therefore more than one Latin name is frequently given for one substance." Clark enlisted two Chinese botanists for help with the identification, but gives no other details about the methods employed or about the material that was examined.

In much of the early marketing literature promoting gojiberry "Lycium eleagnus pungens" was the name used. This name has no standing in the botanical literature and that raised concerns that the gojiberry story was more about marketing hype than about a traditional Tibetan medicine. It seems possible that that fictitious name may have been taken inaccurately as a concatenation of the names of two different plants listed in Clark’s book. Certainly, the obfuscation, deliberate or intentional, served to shroud the mystery of the origins of the plant for a number of years which may have helped the early promoters keep control of the gojiberry market for a time.

I have suggested elsewhere that the made-up name "gojiberry" comes from the Chinese name for wolfberry. The Chinese is "gou-gi-zi". "Zi" means berry; and "goji" is an obvious derivative of "gou-gi".

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