Solanaceae Nightshade family

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Description: An arching, floppy shrub with small leaves, and purple flowers, followed by scarlet berries in the fall.

Habitat: Hedgerows, gardens, and near the sea, growing on a variety of soils.

Distribution: Native to Asia and possibly to eastern Europe. Found in most European countries and widely distributed in North America.

Related species: Lycium chinense (Chinese tea plant, Chinese desert thorn) and L. barbarum (Duke of Argyll's tea plant, matrimony vine) are very similar and may be used interchangeably. There are around 80 other species in the genus, found in the Americas, Eurasia and Africa.

Parts used: Berries gathered in fall.

Use lycium for...

Lycium is both a food and a medicine, and the berries can be eaten daily, dried if fresh isn't available, with claimed improvement in strength, eyesight, and male sexual performance. They are safe even in quantity, with no reported safety issues, except when somebody has problems with nightshade family plants, such as potato or tomato.

The fresh berry is tasty and somewhat astringent, resembling a small persimmon, and when dried is like a sweet red raisin. We eat dried berries on cereal or hot with rice; in China itself lycium tea, coffee, wine, and beer are all made.

There has been considerable recent hype about the "superfood" benefits of lycium taken as a juice, but we make no comment here on the claims for commercial goji products. Full-scale research is lacking, and we base our comments on our own experience and that of herbalists whose opinion we respect.

One benefit of lycium that is generally accepted is to promote a healthy gut flora, while lowering "bad" LDL and VLDL cholesterol levels in the bloodstream. The berries serve to stabilize the capillaries, veins, and arteries throughout the body. They work on thread and varicose veins, and fragile capillaries that bleed under the skin. They also help to reduce narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis), thereby benefiting cold hands and feet.

This effect of lycium berries on capillaries is one reason they are good for the eyes; they also contain high levels of lutein and other carotenoids needed by the retina and for healthy eye functioning.

Regular use of lycium berries can help improve night vision, reduces excessive watering of the eyes, and delays the onset of cataracts and glaucoma. The berries also stimulate lubrication of dry, red, or painful eyes, and prevent macular degeneration.

There are, further, indications that the berries enhance the beneficial effects of chemotherapy and radiation while also protecting cancer patients against the reduced white blood cell count that will often accompany these treatments. The berries support the liver against the side effects of medication and help relieve cachexia (malnutrition and other metabolic disturbances linked with cancer and AIDS). This liver protection also extends to exposure to toxic chemicals.

In addition, the berries, with plentiful antioxidants and high levels of vitamin C, reduce inflammation, enhance the immune function, and slow down tumor growth.

These are substantial and substantiated benefits for any herb, especially one that is widely naturalized. Lycium has also attracted official attention. It was specifically named in 2003 by a British government department looking at protecting traditional hedgerows (the locations named were in maritime Suffolk and Norfolk). More recently, in mid-2007, goji products were officially approved for sale as a food in the UK after demonstrating a proven history of use, mainly in the UK Chinese population, for many years.

[Lycium fruit and leaf] makes one feel happy and vigorous.

- Lu Ji, Shi Shu, an ancient Chinese text

[do not eat lycium] when traveling thousands of miles from home

- Chinese saying, referring to sexual potency of lycium

In China it has long been claimed that lycium improves sexual performance, mainly in older men. Research has found that regular doses of the berries can raise testosterone levels when these are deficient. Many older men have this problem, so to this extent lycium may reduce impotence and can be seen as aphrodisiac.

Allied to the last use, lycium is renowned as anti-aging, one Chinese name being "drive-away-old-ageberries." This is good news, but marketing claims that one man, Li Qing Yen, lived for 252 years (16781930) because he took daily lycium are surely excessive.

Our descriptions of lycium's many and varied "virtues," in the old herbal phrase, should not cloud the fact that it is an effective general energy-restoring tonic treatment, which can be safely taken on a long-term basis.

For example, a serving of 3.5 oz of dried berries has been estimated to supply 100% of daily needs of iron and riboflavin (vitamin B2), and nearly all the selenium and calcium. It is reasonably strong in vitamin C but exceptionally rich in polysaccharides and zeaxanthin.

Lycium in Lincolnshire: a sprawling hedge in the English village of Nettleton, in June

Both the berries and leaves of lycium can be eaten

Goji is not a cheap commercial product, but it need not be expensive to use if you harvest from a local field side or plant your own lycium hedge. It is easy to grow from seed, but note that snails adore it and will devour seedlings. Once established, it is vigorous (it is used as a dune-fixer), and needs strong springtime pruning. This effort could repay you with a mass of beautiful purple flowers and brilliant scarlet berries later.

Lycium is interesting, with both ancient and very modern health applications. Goji berries and juice are a fashion of the day, with China exporting $120,000,000 of these products in 2004. But even if this commercial fad declines, lycium is worthy of a place in your garden, with much to commend it as food and medicine.

The berries are picked in the fall when they are ripe. These scarlet, glossy fruits are enjoyed by a variety of wildlife, so you will have some competition. The best ones are often found where bramble and nettle help protect them, but they have no thorns themselves. They can be eaten fresh and have an unusual flavor, similar to persimmon with perhaps a hint of red bell pepper.

Lycium berry tincture

Put your fresh lycium berries in a blender with enough vodka to cover them, and blend briefly. Pour into a jar and leave in a cool dark place for a couple of days, then strain off the liquid. Bottle and label.

Dose: 1 teaspoonful 2 to 3 times a day.

Lycium berry tincture

• fragile capillaries

• varicose veins

high cholesterol

• aphrodisiac

In close-up, the elegant pink and mauvestreaked flowers of common mallow hint at its family connection to the hibiscus and suggest an Art Nouveau lampshade. If the leaves and stems didn't go so straggly later in the year, it would be a stunning garden plant.

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