China has one of the longest-standing herbal traditions in the world, and one of the oldest books on medicinal substances (also known as a “materia medica”) in the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, which was compiled in the 1st century AD during the Han dynasty.
Crucial to the development and continuation of this herbal tradition that is still going strong in China was trade. As herbal cultivation methods were rudimentary (compared to today’s modern laboratory settings and monoculture farms), most herbs needed to be transported from where they were harvested, and as you probably are aware, China is a very, very vast nation. The Chinese were also trading with other countries over a broad geographic area - many herbs that are now cultivated in China once had to be sourced from places like India and beyond.
Check in here as Mason (founder of SuperFeast) shares everything you need to know on China and Di Tao - a live podcast from the China hinterlands!
You can imagine that it was pretty tough to ensure your herbal source was legit back in those days (these days we have laboratory testing and fingerprint chromatography to help us make sure our herbs are from the right place). Therefore it became necessary to develop a system to ensure the authenticity of the source in recognition of specific regions and production practices that resulted in the highest quality herbs.
So, what is Di Tao?
Di Tao (or daodi) doesn’t translate easily into English, like many of the great Chinese concepts (e.g. Jing, Qi, and Shen!!) The word Tao, or Dao, in this case refers to the district in which the herb is grown, and di is more to do with the soil and land in which the herb is grown. Ron Teeguarden, founder of Dragon Herbs and legendary tonic herbalist, translates Di Tao to “Earth Tao,” or “the Way of the Earth.” He says, “Every plant has its perfect habitat where the plant flourishes, and in the case of an herb or food, becomes the most phytochemically rich and balanced.”
Di Tao herbs must be high quality, medicinally dense herbs that have been grown in their natural habitat. This provides the herbs with the healing properties that allow them to be effective in fulfilling their purpose as a medicinal herb and, especially in the cases of the tonics, supporting the Treasures: Jing, Qi and/or Shen. This quality is acknowledged and the results achieved by these herbs are replicable (as per the scientific method) by generations of herbalists working with them; to use a Di Tao herb is to tap into a long and ancient lineage of herbal wisdom.
Di Tao isn’t just some ancient concept that has been lost to all but a few Taoist herbalists. It’s acknowledged by the Chinese government and recognised by modern TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) practitioners too. An attempt to define Di Tao for modern herbalists was made at the 390th Xiangshan Scientific Conference in Beijing in 2011:
“Medicinal material that is produced and assembled in specific geographic regions with designated natural conditions and a specific ecological environment, with particular attention to cultivation technique, harvesting, and processing. These factors lead to quality and clinical effects that surpass items of the same botanical origin that are produced in other regions; thus, such items are widely recognized and enjoy a good reputation.”
About 200 of the 500 or so herbs in the Chinese materia medica have specific Di Tao forms, and these herbs make up about 80% of the Chinese herb market.
Di Tao is a fundamental concept in Chinese herbalism but one that is vastly overlooked and disregarded by many Western herbal companies.
The Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing was the first text to discuss the importance of production regions, though certainly not the last. In 659 AD, the Tang Dynasty herbalists emphasised the importance of production regions, stating: “if medicinal material is not produced from its native environment, it will be the same in substance but will differ in effect.”
The famous Tang Dynasty author Sun Simiao recognised the importance of Di Tao with the following statement:
“Ancient doctors depended on medicinals produced from the proper production areas. Therefore, if they treated ten patients, they achieved results in nine. Although contemporary doctors understand the pulse and prescriptions, they are not familiar with the proper production regions, harvest time, and, quality of medicinals. Thus, they only achieve results in five or six cases out of ten.”
Lab-Grown vs Di Tao
To put it simply, reishi grown in a mountain in China and reishi grown in labs in the USA is different, no matter what the scientists say. At SuperFeast, we are absolutely steadfast in this knowing. You cannot expect the same energy from a mushroom that didn't have to grow through cold winters and nights, exposed to high altitudes and winds, and fed off natural water such as rain and water from the river. Essentially the energy is lacking and it will not work as effectively as one that did.
Again, to quote Mr Teeguarden, “Chemical analysis is also an important method of determining the quality of an herb. But it is a highly over-rated method. Generally one, or maybe two, chemicals are established as a “marker” for an herb, and herbs are sold based on that marker. This can be very misleading. Herbs are complex, and some are VERY complex. Reishi mushroom, for example, has over 800 known pharmacologically active constituents. Many of them play roles in the benefits attributed to Reishi. The quantity of certain constituents matters, but so does the quality of these constituents. And the ratio of these constituents may play an essential role in whether an herb does something or not, or does it well. To sell Reishi or any other herb based on narrow standardization (one or two marker constituents) is just a trick.”
Di Tao is kind of like the wine industry’s notion of terroir, but the concept of Di Tao is slightly more complex because it is intricately related to effectiveness of the herbs, as well as macroscopic qualities such as taste and appearance. It’s kind of like the idea of a vintage too, how that year the grapes tasted a certain way as a result of their exposure to rain, sun and whatever else was going on…we find our herbs vary from season to season, and if you take our herbs over a few years you’ll notice that too.
Cultivation in and of itself is not considered to have a negative effect on many herbs, so long as they are still exposed to the natural elements. Most Di Tao cultivation is semi-wild, in that the herbs are still fighting to survive and are not given an easy run!! The constituents of a plant are affected by environmental factors such as soil, climate, humidity and light, which directly influence the bioactive compounds available in the resultant herbal medicine. In ancient times, differences based on environmental conditions were noted in the Chinese saying that “tangerines that grow south of the huai river are tangerines, when grown north of the huai river they are bitter oranges; the leaves are similar but the flavor of the fruit is different.”
Herbs like rehmannia (found in our JING) have been cultivated for centuries in the Henan province, using semi-wild cultivation techniques that ensure the herbs are potent and a sustainable resource. This is considered the Di Tao region for rehmannia. Herbs like rhodiola, in our Neural Nectar, are sourced wild from Tibet, their Di Tao home. Our schizandra is wild from Changbai Mountains…where we also source our wild chaga. We find that, while wild is preferable, many times it’s unsustainable and/or prohibitively expensive to use fully wild herbs (for example, cordyceps, though we’re working on having some wild stuff available for those of you who would like to try it). Cordyceps is the only mushroom we’ll accept as lab-grown, for now, until we come up with a better option. Watch this space! Otherwise, all our other mushrooms and herbs are wild, or semi-wild.
But is it organic?
To be perfectly honest, we don’t really care about the label organic. Di Tao is not to be confused with organic. Organic is a certification that, unfortunately, these days can be bought and used as a marketing tool by huge companies. However it is often out of reach for many of the people who grow our herbs, who truly do care for and tend the land in a clean and sustainable way; the way humans have been doing for thousands of years. Most of the food we buy here in the Byron Shire is from local farmers who cannot afford the label organic, and similarly in China, it’s very, very hard (I don’t want to say impossible, but it’s pretty close to impossible) for a small producer or a wild herb harvester to earn the label organic. We DO test our herbs rigorously, and ensure they test ‘BEYOND ORGANIC,’ as this is super important to us.
Need a refresher on whattonic herbs are? Wait, what's amedicinal mushroom again?! Or, if you found this discourse interesting, check outThe Taoist Brains to dive deeper into Taoist philosophy! Plus we have some epic podcast episodes you can nerd out to here :)
Evidence-Based Validation of Herbal Medicine edited by Pulok K. Mukherjee
Geographical Indications for Medicinal Plants: Globalization, Climate Change, Quality and Market Implications for Geo-Authentic Botanicals by Josef A. Brinckmann (accessed online https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/eaed/216bfe06ebd3229a508580e4ec46805aa1eb.pdf)
What is “Daodi” Medicinal Material? By Eric Brand, Zhongzhen Zhao, and Ping Guo (accessed online http://mzines.net/publications/1357/p/om_spring_final-optimized.pdf)
Great Herbal Sourcing Is the Secret of Great Herbalism by Ron Teeguarden (accessed via http://ashokkoul.blogspot.com.au/2014/06/the-earth-tao-principle-di-tao.html)
The formation of daodi medicinal materials By Eric Brand, Zhongzhen Zhao, and Ping Guo (accessed online https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S037887411200061X)
Image source: Instagram @sarah.smiles9