Flowering time (month)
Ornamental or utility value
fresh to moderately moist
neutral to slightly acidic
The herb of immortality is a perennial climbing plant of the pumpkin family (Cucurbitaceae). It bears the botanical name Gynostemma pentaphyllum and is also known in its East Asian homeland as Jiaogulan or Jiao Gu Lan. The herb of immortality originates from China, more precisely from the southern Chinese province of Guizhou. Only in the year 1400 did a census show that the proportion of people over one hundred in this province was well above the national average. Life expectancy was also significantly higher in the two provinces of Shiquan and Gunagxi. After other factors could be excluded, the researchers later uncovered the possible cause: people have been drinking tea from the leaves of the Jiaogulan plant since time immemorial. In the meantime, the climbing plant, which in the 18th century was initially thought to be a vine species (Vitis) by its European discoverer, the Swedish botanist Carl Peter Thunberg, is being used as a medicinal plant throughout Southeast Asia and in many places has gone wild. It grows particularly well in humid mountain forests up to 3,000 metres above sea level and can form thickets with its lianas.
The herb of immortality is a fast-growing perennial shrub with long and conspicuously thin, looping climbing shoots that can reach a height of three to five metres in Central Europe, depending on location and climate. From the growth-behavior, it reminds of the native hops (Humulus lupulus), with which it is not related however. Jiaogulan can withstand temperatures down to -15 degrees and is sufficiently hardy in mild regions of Central Europe. In winter the shoots die down to ground level, but the herb of immortality still lives up to its name – it hibernates in the subterranean, bulbously thickened storage roots and sprouts again next spring. The alternate leaves consist of five pointed leaflets and are reminiscent of the leaves of the young vine (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). The small and rather inconspicuous star-shaped flowers are greenish-white and appear in panicles from July to August. The female flowers develop into spherical black berries of up to eight millimetres in size. The herb of immortality, however, is dioecious, i.e. it is separated by sex. That is why you need a male and a female plant so that berries can form.
In Central Europe, the curative effect of the herb of immortality was only noticed in the 1970s. The leaves, which taste slightly like liquorice, contain four times as many saponins as the ginseng. In addition, the plant provides various amino acids, vitamins, minerals and complex sugar compounds. Jiaogulan has a calming effect on stress, sleep disorders and high blood pressure. In addition, the herb lowers the blood sugar level and the blood fat values, has a hematopoietic effect, inhibits cancer and strengthens the immune system. In short, there is hardly any other medicinal plant in the world that is said to have such an abundance of beneficial influences on the human organism – although the exact mechanisms of action have only just begun to be researched. In traditional Chinese medicine, Jiaogulan is considered one of the ten most important health-promoting herbs.
Location and soil
The herb of immortality is generally undemanding. It needs a sunny to semi-shade location, which should be somewhat protected in Central Europe. It thrives best at slightly higher humidity. The soil should be permeable, rich in humus, moderately moist and not too poor in nutrients. Very loamy, mineral soils are not optimal. For cultivation in pots, you can use normal pot plant soil that is not too low in humus. A climbing frame is important in both cases.
Planting and care
The best period for outdoor planting is spring. So the herb of immortality can root well until the first winter. Planting in a pot is possible all year round. A planter of sufficient size should be chosen to ensure that the water supply is as constant as possible. A five-litre pot is sufficient for young plants and at least ten litres for older plants.
Place the climbing perennial on a climbing scaffold while planting and always guide the growing climbing shoots up to it in time. If the climbing shoots have ground contact for some time, they form their own roots and can thus spread strongly in the garden. A herb of immortality planted in the garden should be fertilized with ripe compost in spring and watered in time during longer dry periods. In the spring before new shoots are planted, all dead climbing shoots from the previous year are cut off at ground level and removed from the climbing scaffold. Potted plants of course also need regular watering and should be supplied every 14 days with a liquid organic flower fertilizer.
Winter protection and overwintering
Newly planted Jiaogulan is protected in the root area in the first winter with a thick layer of autumn leaves. In the following years, winter protection in climatically favourable regions is no longer absolutely necessary. Potted plants can be further cultivated in the winter garden at 15 to 20 degrees. They then remain green all year round. In dark winter conditions, for example in a garage or garden house, the ambient temperature should not exceed five degrees Celsius.
Harvesting and preparation
From the herb of immortality mainly the leaves are used. They can be harvested all year round during warm hibernation and either dried or prepared fresh as tea. Pour a heaped teaspoon of fresh or dry crushed pinnate leaves (preferably without stems) with a quarter of a litre of hot water. It should no longer boil and should be a maximum of 90 degrees hot. Allow the brew to brew for five minutes and then drink it as hot as possible. The tea from fresh leaves tastes slightly sweet with a tart, anise to salmiak-like taste. Dried leaves, on the other hand, have a more bitter, bitter note, especially if the tea has been infused too hot. The young leaves are generally more aromatic than the older ones and the taste of different plants can vary slightly. The aroma is caused by the gypenosides and ginsenosides belonging to the group of soap substances (saponins). They are also contained in the ginseng root. Jiaogulan leaves can also be used to sweeten teas or to make smoothies from the leaves, for example together with apple juice and bananas. They are also suitable as a salad ingredient and can be used cooked like spinach.
The propagation of Jiaogulan is very simple: In spring you simply lead a new shoot over the ground and wait until it has formed its own roots. The plant can also be propagated in late winter by dividing the rhizome-like roots. Sowing is also possible, but usually not sensible, since the concentration of healthy ingredients in the offspring can vary greatly.
Diseases and pests
Depending on its location, the herb is somewhat susceptible to powdery mildew. An airy place in the garden reduces susceptibility. If the leaves turn brown in places, this is often due to a too sunny location in connection with an insufficient water supply.
Jiaogulan in the MY BEAUTIFUL GARDEN-Shop
I am Don Burke, one of the authors at My Garden Guide. I am a horticulturist that cultivates, grows, and cares for plants, ranging from shrubs and fruits to flowers. I do it in my own garden and in my nursery. I show you how to take care of your garden and how to perform garden landscaping in an easy way, step by step.I am originally from Sydney and I wrote in local magazines. Later on, I have decided, more than two decades ago, to create my own blog. My area of specialization is related to orchid care, succulent care, and the study of the substrate and the soil. Therefore, you will see many articles dedicated to these disciplines. I also provide advice about how to improve the landscape design of your garden.