Schisandra chinensis


Magnolia vine, schisandra or wu wei zi, is a relative newcomer to my Materia Medica. Yet, in the decade or so that we have been growing it on the farm, I have discovered it to be one of the most versatile, essential and tasty herbal allies in our apothecary. Qi stimulating schisandra is considered one of the 50 fundamental herbs in Traditional Chinese Medicine and has a millennia-long history of safe use. The four organs that schisandra berries target specifically are the heart, kidneys, lungs and liver.

As far back as 2697 B.C. schisandra was classified as a superior or kingly herb in the classic Yellow Emperor's Study of Inner Medicine. According to the Xin Xiu Ben Cao, compiled in the Tang dynasty between 618-907 A.D., the reason schisandra was named wu wei zi or Five Flavored Berry, is because of its sweet, sour and salty flesh and its pungent, bitter pit.

In TCM, the preservation, protection and nourishment of the Three Treasures form the foundation of optimum health and spiritual well-being. Schisandra is one of the few herbs the Chinese believe nourishes all three treasures, Jing, Qi and Shen, which are thought to sustain the essential energies for human life. Because the berry contains all five flavors it is thought to balance and regulate all five elements; wood, fire, earth, metal, water as well as all twelve organ-meridian systems.

In the Ben Cao Gang Mu, written in the 16th century, schisandra is said to increase energy, replenish and nourish the viscera, improve vision, boost muscular activity and soothe coughs and digestive upsets. Schisandra is a nourishing tonic to the brain and mind, and will help increase clarity, improve memory and mental function and enhance sexual performance and enjoyment as well, when consumed regularly.

The restorative berries enhance longevity and boost overall vitality and endurance, working capacity and accuracy of movement. It’s used by the indigenous Nanai, who inhabit the undulating basin lands between east Russia and China, to improve night vision, as a strength building tonic, and to reduce hunger, thirst and exhaustion while on a hunt. Schisandra berries promote healthy vision, enhance night vision, decrease eye fatigue. My friend and former student Karyla Gaines, an acupuncturist and practitioner of Chinese Medicine, told me the reason schisandra helps with vision is because of its positive effects on the Liver.

A proven adaptogen, schisandra berries are useful to counter adrenal fatigue and exhaustion. Research demonstrates that schisandra berry slows the aging process, relieves stress and anxiety and eases depression. Schisandra berries are both stimulating and calming. They relieve anxiety while offering a sense of alertness.

Schisandra nourishes our vital energy, our vital essence. In Chinese Medicine schisandra is said to calm the Shen – which corresponds to mind, spirit, consciousness, soul, energy, God – and which the Chinese believe resides in the heart. Shen can be observed through the quality of our thoughts and the function of our minds. Schisandra supports mental clarity and agility and has been shown to improve concentration. The way that the element fire informs and inspires full-expansion through love and compassion, is exactly the way schisandra is said to affect Shen. Shen is also our ability to speak our truth – as the tongue is believed to be connected to the heart, allowing us to speak authentically and honestly.

The berries have a history of use in both prevention and treatment of neurological problems, including headaches, migraines, impaired memory and concentration, anxiety, depression, insomnia, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and chronic fatigue.

Nootropics (herbs that enhance cerebral function) support and complement adaptogens such as schisandra berry in treating nervous system conditions. Nootropics include ginkgo, lavender and rosemary. Nervines complement the use of adaptogens and they can be taken together to treat anxiety and depression. The following offer anti-anxiety benefits and blend well with adaptogens such as schisandra berry: chamomile, fresh milky oat tops, hawthorn, motherwort, passion flower and skullcap. Herbs offering specific antidepressant qualities that can be combined with schisandra include lemon balm, St. John’s wort, and again, lavender and rosemary.

Schisandra benefits the lungs and respiratory system, possesses anti-tumor properties and protects against oxidative damage. The lignan-rich berries offer specific benefits to the heart. They are cardioprotective and when used preventively, protect heart tissue from myocardial infarction. Interestingly, the berries appear to induce these benefits by a hormetic (induce a bit of harm, reap a greater amount of benefit) mechanism. Schisandra increases blood flow and nitric oxide bioavailability, which enhances the cardioprotective effects.

Schisandra benefits the musculoskeletal system and the endocrine system, so can act as a balancing and moistening ally during menopause.

Schisandra’s immunomodulating abilities are legendary. The berries are an important support for all allergy-related skin problems. In fact, schisandra is renowned as a beauty tonic and is considered a youth-preserving herb. The astringent berries have been used for centuries to enhance the health of the skin, leaving it soft, clear, moist and radiant. Antioxidant-rich schisandra may protect against UVB induced skin damage.

In Chinese medicine it is commonly used to help treat night sweats, excessive thirst, dry mouth, frequent urination, urinary incontinence and premature ejaculation because it tonifies kidney and balances the secretions of body fluid. Schisandra nourishes and protects the liver, increasing the efficiency of cellular waste removal.

Schisandra is rich in organic acids, vitamins, flavonoids, phytosterols, polysaccharides and lignans (e.g. schizandrin and schisandrin B). Some refer to it as a superfruit - it is high in antioxidant vitamins C & E, minerals and aromatic principles.

According to Pharmacology of Schisandra Chinensis, an overview of Russian research and uses in medicine by A. Panossian and G. Wikman, numerous clinical trials have demonstrated the efficiency of schisandra in asthenia, neuralgic and psychiatric disorders including depression, schizophrenia and alcoholism, impaired visual function, hypotension and cardiotonic disorders, epidemic waves of influenza, chronic sinusitis, otitis, pneumonia, radioprotection of the fetoplacental system of pregnant women, allergic dermatitis, acute gastrointestinal diseases, gastric hyper and hyposecretion, chronic gastritis, stomach and duodenal ulcers, and wound healing and trophic ulcers.

Flower Essence Schisandra flower essence supports stability through the process of change. It strengthens and encourages when you feel anxious or fearful about growing/changing and revealing your true self.

Magical Lore Brilliant red berries with all five flavors, affecting five organ systems and all twelve meridians…all tell me there is some potent magic to be had here. Keep dried schisandra berries close to ensure your boundaries are strong, your wild heart is connected to the earth, and you act from a balanced and well centered place.

Culture Schisandra is a quick growing deciduous climbing vine, approximately 15 feet high, hardy to zone 4, likes full sun but will tolerate part shade, and appreciates rich, fertile, well-drained, humus-rich soil. The plants are naturally dioecious, requiring both a male and female for pollination and fruiting. There is a hybrid variety that is self-pollinating, though likely to revert back to a dioecious state. The vines bear small, milky white hanging flowers in late spring that ripen in fall into bright red berries borne in clusters and look much like red currants.

Traditionally, the berries are air-dried, processed fresh/raw or steamed with vinegar and honey. The plant is native to Northeast China and parts of Russia. We’ve been growing it here in the Blessed Maine Herb Farm gardens for a number of years and it seems to thrive in our cold Maine climate.

I gather the berries when ripe, tincture them fresh in alcohol - which turns a gorgeous ruby red color, cover some with honey and dry the rest on screens for adding to teas and infusions. I love the flavor of Schisandra Berry Elixir…cover the fresh or dried berries with half alcohol, half honey, yum! Press the fresh berries for juice, or cover with water in a pot and simmer until the liquid turns a beautiful red color, sweeten to taste. The fruit can be made into preserves, mead and wine. Dosages:

Tincture – 30 drops up to 4 times daily

Standard infusion – 4 oz. three times daily

Syrup – 1 tablespoon up to four times daily

NOTE: May prevent liver damage caused by hepatotoxic medications such as acetaminophen and tetracycline. May increase the effectiveness of barbiturates. May decrease the effectiveness of Warfarin/blood thinners.

WARNING! Although rare, schisandra berry may cause adverse reactions such as belching, acid reflux, gastric burning, nausea, vomiting or allergic reactions.

WARNING! Do not use during the acute stage of an infection such as cold or flu. Do not use during pregnancy or if trying to conceive.

Return to Materia Medica