Zhaotong Gastrodia Elata (Tianma)

Zhaotong Tianma, a specialty of Zhaotong City, Yunnan Province, is a Chinese geographical indication product. Zhaotong is renowned for its ideal environment across its 11 counties and cities where wild Gastrodia Elata thrives, boasting the highest yield and best quality among all Tianma-producing regions in China. According to the “Compendium of Chinese Specialty Products,” Zhaotong’s Tianma is described as large, plump, and brightly yellow-white, known as Yun Tianma.

Tianma is a precious traditional Chinese medicine primarily composed of gastrodin. It possesses various therapeutic and tonic functions such as anti-epileptic, anti-convulsant, anti-rheumatic, sedative, antispasmodic, analgesic, and tonic effects. Clinically, it is used to treat conditions like hypertension, vascular neuralgia, post-concussion syndrome, speech impediments, rheumatism, limb spasms, and infantile convulsions with notable efficacy.

On October 13, 2004, the former General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine of China approved the geographical indication protection for “Zhaotong Tianma”.

Processing Techniques

The processing of Zhaotong Gastrodia Elata follows traditional methods. Harvesting occurs annually in November when fresh Gastrodia Elata is dug out, graded, and washed. The different grades of Gastrodia Elata tubers are then placed into bamboo steamers or wooden rice steamers. They are steamed vigorously for 8 to 15 minutes until thoroughly cooked. After steaming, they are taken out to air-dry to remove moisture. Subsequently, they are placed in a drying room or on low-sulfur smokeless coal fires for baking. The temperature is controlled between 60°C to 80°C. During baking, the Gastrodia Elata is continuously flipped and kneaded by hand to shape it until fully dried. Practical experience has shown that this processing method preserves the medicinal components of Gastrodia Elata without damage.

Origin Environment

Zhaotong Gastrodia Elata originates from Zhaotong City, Yunnan Province, located in the northeastern part of Yunnan Province between 105°52′ to 105°19′ east longitude and 26°34′ to 28°40′ north latitude. It is a typical mountainous region with crisscrossing gullies, steep terrain, high mountains, deep valleys, and few plains.

The primary production area of Zhaotong Gastrodia Elata features gurgling streams, ancient towering trees, and fresh air, forming a natural environment rarely disturbed by human activities. This area serves as a transitional zone from the Sichuan Basin to the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, where warm and cold air masses converge, creating a semi-stable climate known as the Kunming quasi-stationary front climate. It is characterized by abundant rainfall and limited sunshine throughout the year. Moreover, the pristine forests remain undisturbed, preserving biodiversity and providing excellent conditions such as natural humus soil for the growth of Gastrodia Elata.

Whether grown wild or cultivated under forest canopy, Zhaotong Gastrodia Elata completes its growth cycle under natural tree cover without the use of fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. This practice ensures that the original ecological, pollution-free, and authentic qualities of Zhaotong Gastrodia Elata are maintained. It is an essential condition for sustainable development, ensuring the quality resembling wild Gastrodia Elata while safeguarding the ecological environment.

Historical Origins

In the Tang Dynasty, the renowned poet Bai Juyi’s poem “斋居” includes the line “黄芪数匙粥,赤箭一瓯汤”, mentioning Huangqi (Astragalus membranaceus) and Tianma (Gastrodia elata) as ingredients for cooking porridge and soup. Tianma was also known as “赤箭” (Chijian) in ancient times, highlighting its dual role as both a food and medicinal herb during this period. The Tang Dynasty calligrapher Liu Gongquan’s work “求赤箭贴” similarly depicts Tianma’s use as a nourishing food for the elderly.

Moving to the Ming Dynasty, Li Shizhen’s “Compendium of Materia Medica” documented several methods of consuming Tianma: “Some eat it raw, some cook or steam it,” and “Some fry it with honey for a special treat.”

The fame of Zhaotong Tianma spread far and wide. In the 50th year of the Qing Emperor Qianlong’s reign (1785), the Prefect of Yibin in Sichuan presented specially selected Tianma to honor Emperor Qianlong’s birthday, showcasing its prestigious status. This sparked a trend where local officials used Tianma to curry favor or advance their careers, becoming a societal issue. From the late Qing Dynasty through the Republic of China era, the annual Tianma harvesting season turned remote areas like Xiaocaoba into bustling markets, with daily trade reaching over a thousand kilograms.

In the 1950s, due to excessive wild harvesting, Zhaotong Tianma faced declining yields. To meet domestic and international market demands sustainably, Zhaotong began experiments on sexual and asexual reproduction of Tianma under the guidance of the Kunming Institute of Botany starting from the late 1950s.

In 1973, “Chinese Xiaocaoba Tianma” fetched an astonishing price of 120,000 yuan per ton at the Guangzhou Autumn Trade Fair.

By 1978, scientific achievements in cultivating Tianma were verified and promoted across 11 cities and counties.

Production Situation

From 2011 to 2014, Zhaotong City accumulated a total of 240,900 hectares of Tianma cultivation, yielding 74.55 million kilograms, and achieving a cumulative production value of 10.923 billion yuan.

In 2015, Tianma cultivation area in Zhaotong reached 70,000 hectares, yielding 21 million kilograms of commercial hemp, with a total production value of 2.7 billion yuan.

By 2017, the Tianma cultivation area in Zhaotong expanded to 80,500 hectares, achieving a total production value of 3.97 billion yuan, including 2.54 billion yuan from cultivation and 1.43 billion yuan from processing. The average annual income of impoverished local residents engaged in Tianma cultivation exceeded 4,450 yuan per person, setting a historical record.

Product Honors

On October 13, 2004, the former General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine approved the implementation of geographical indication protection for “Zhaotong Tianma.”

Geographical Indication

Scope of Geographical Protection

The geographical scope of Zhaotong Tianma origin protection is defined by the Zhaotong Municipal People’s Government of Yunnan Province in the document “Letter on Defining the Scope of Geographical Origin Protection of Zhaotong Tianma” (Zhaopolitics [2004] No. 126), covering the current administrative area of Zhaotong City, Yunnan Province.

Quality and Technical Requirements

(1) Varieties: Black Tianma, Yellow Tianma.

(2) Planting Range: Suitable planting areas between 1,400 meters and 2,800 meters above sea level.

(3) Cultivation Techniques:

Substrate: Trees from Fagaceae, Betulaceae, and Rosaceae families.
Strain: High-quality local strains of Armillaria mellea.
Planting: Both sexual and asexual reproduction methods are employed in standardized plantation under forest cover.
Growth Cycle: Mature Gastrodia elata (winter Tianma) planted for at least two years.
Harvesting Time: Around the winter solstice each year.
(4) Processing: After harvesting, Tianma is graded, cleaned, steamed with circulating steam until fully cooked, and then dried at 60°C to 80°C.

(5) Quality Characteristics: Tianma pieces are predominantly wide-ovate or ovate, with some elliptical or oblong-elliptical shapes, slightly curved and slightly flattened. They are hard and not easily broken. Tianma pieces are classified into four grades based on size after drying: special grade, first grade, second grade, and third grade. They contain Gastrodin (C13H18O7) ≥ 0.4% and moisture content below 13%.

Special Logo Usage

Producers within the geographical origin of Zhaotong Tianma who wish to use the “Geographical Origin Product Special Logo” must apply to the local quality and technical supervision bureau’s Zhaotong Tianma Geographical Origin Product Protection declaration institution. Upon passing the initial review and approval announced by the former General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, they are permitted to use the “Zhaotong Tianma Geographical Origin Product Special Logo.”

Historical and Cultural Significance

Legend One: Tianma Treats Headaches

In the “Records of the Three Kingdoms,” it is documented that due to constant military and administrative duties, Cao Cao suffered severe headaches. Seeking relief, Cao Cao consulted numerous physicians until he finally met Dong Feng. Dong Feng, after thorough examination, specially prepared Tianma pills for Cao Cao. Upon taking them, Cao Cao experienced significant relief from his headaches. He continued to use Tianma, sometimes adding it to his meals, thus popularizing its consumption.

Legend Two: Aid in Conquering Fire and Paving the Way

According to the “Annals of Zhenxiong Prefecture,” during the Three Kingdoms period, Zhuge Liang led the Shu army on a southern expedition, passing through what is now known as Xiaocaoba. The Tianma here played a significant role in Zhuge Liang’s successful campaign. Departing from Chengdu, Zhuge Liang arrived at Xiaocaoba. Upon arrival, he noticed that his soldiers, under the strain of transitioning from the Chengdu plains to the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, suffered from dizziness and reduced combat effectiveness. Zhuge Liang then ordered the consumption of Tianma, which swiftly alleviated these symptoms. Later, the Yi ethnic leader Ji Huo was honored as the King of Luodian by Liu Bei for his contributions.

Legend Three: Empress Dowager Cixi’s Use of Tianma to Treat Facial Neuralgia

During the Guangxu period of the Qing dynasty, Empress Dowager Cixi suffered from facial neuralgia. Tianma, combined with other wind-expelling and blood circulation-improving medicines, was ground into powder, mixed with wine, and applied as a hot compress to the affected areas. This treatment gradually alleviated her condition. Zhang Zhicong, a renowned physician of the Qing dynasty, praised Tianma as equivalent to the Five Roots and superior to the Five Ginsengs, labeling it as a top-grade medicinal herb fit for immortals.

Legend Four: Emperor Guangxu’s Use of Tianma for Headaches

Emperor Guangxu faced significant external and internal challenges, often suffering from severe headaches and dizziness. Eventually, he discovered a remarkable remedy—a decoction of Tianma combined with other medicinal herbs, which he used to wash his head. This treatment notably improved his headaches.

These historical anecdotes illustrate Tianma’s longstanding reputation in traditional Chinese medicine for treating various ailments, from headaches and dizziness to neuralgia, underscoring its enduring cultural and medicinal significance throughout Chinese history.