Getting to Know Tibetan Plants and Traditional Medicine
The high elevation and stark habitat of Tibet create a unique home for plants and animals, and the region is a stunning location for trekking and touring. Visitors to Tibet may have a cursory knowledge of Tibetan culture, especially Tibetan Buddhism, but there is so much more to experience.
One particularly fascinating aspect of Tibetan culture is Tibetan Traditional Medicine, which is distinct from Chinese Traditional Medicine. It has been recorded in many classic works dating from about 770 AD. Along with the rich tradition of plant-based medical knowledge, Tibetans typically have a wide knowledge about plants and how to use them.
During a visit to Tibet, experience Tibetan culture with all of your senses. Smell cedar incense, taste tsampa and buckwheat pancakes, feel something made of rhododendron wood. Here are seven culturally important plants for Tibetans that you may spot while trekking or touring in Tibet:
Rhododendron is a group of flowering shrubs or trees with great diversity throughout the Himalayas. They produce high quality wood. Although often thought by Tibetans to be unsuitable for use as a tribute to the Buddha, it is frequently used to make household items including bowls, yak butter tea churners and saddles for horses. An abundance of rhododendron species is considered a sign of rangeland degradation, as many species are poisonous to grazing animals.
- Barberry (Berberis)
Barberry is a large group of evergreen and deciduous flowering shrubs. In the past, barberry was a popular and commonly used medicine among Tibetans, but its frequent use caused over-harvesting. This has drastically affected the availability and conservation status of some species, but it is now slowly recovering.
- Snow lotus (Sausurrea)
Snow lotus is a group of species that grows at very high elevations in harsh environments. Several species are very well known for their medicinal uses as an anti-inflammatory. Because snow lotus species fetch a high price in global markets, harvesting has severely impacted its population, which is not recovering despite stricter laws. Several species of snow lotus are considered critically endangered and are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
- Cedar (Cedrus)
Cedar leaves are used as an incense by some Tibetans. You may see cedar leaves burning at temples. Cedar grows in high altitude areas.
Buckwheat is used to make liquor (with a very specific flavor) and as a forage for animals. Recently, buckwheat has become a popular health food, and is consumed as buckwheat tea or buckwheat pancakes. However, many people are now opting to grow less buckwheat in place of better cash crops, like rapeseed. Perhaps as the popularity of buckwheat grows in the international market, buckwheat will be planted more widely again.
Barley is a very common food and is used to make tsampa, a roasted flour that is often mixed with yak butter tea. Barley is also frequently used to make liquor, food for animals, and has ritual value.
- Spurge (Euphorbia)
Spurges are one of the most diverse groups of plants. They can be identified by the latex that oozes out of the waxy leaves when cut (this is often poisonous). Spurges are poisonous to animals and people, so they are an indicator of poor animal grazing lands.
Inspired to go? Have a look at some of the trips Royal Mountain Travel offers in Tibet: