Materia Medica, Pharmacology & Bio-Prospecting

Huang Hua Hao in Bencao Gangmu

Li Shizhen(1518-1593), a Chinese physician of the Ming Dynasty in China, documented Huang Hua Hao 黃花蒿 (Artemisia annua) in Bencao Gangmu 本草綱目(The Compendium of Materia Medica). The Bencao Gangmu comprises of 25 volumes, completed, and printed in the 16th century. The Compendium comprises 1,892 medicinal items, with illustrations and some 11,000 prescriptions. It represents an encyclopaedic compilation of traditional Chinese medicinal culture. Within the source, Huang Hua Hao is identified by the name included the spike-like leaves and thin branches, as seen in the first drawing. The drawing was done with a brush and black ink and minimally detailed, making identification of the plant in the wild quite difficult. This image does not include the characteristic yellow flowers or buds that the plant has and does not have descriptions about the physical characteristics of the plant nor its uses. Since the complication was meant to document all the different medicinal herbs within the "aromatic plants" category, we can assume that it was for readers who were already knowledgeable about the plant's physical characteristics and its uses. 

The use of this plant is recorded in another part of the compilation, separated from the drawing. Li Shizhen describes the uses and smell of the plant. The leaf's smell is described as "pungent, bitter, cool and non-toxic" and the general smell as "pungent, cool, and non-toxic." Li also indicates that it "treats exhaustion, appetizes the stomach, stops night sweats,  and expels evil spirits and poisons." The cold nature of the plant relates to traditional Chinese medicine and its categorization of all substances as cold or hot in relation to yin and yang energies. Additionally, the mention of "night sweats" relates to intermittent fevers, a prominent characteristic of Malaria.

Although none of the images mention an artist, and Li was collecting and creating the compendium, we can assume that either Li was the artist or he had someone draw it on his behalf. Since Li was gathering information from a variety of sources, we hypothesize that the difference in art style is due to either different artists or a reflection of the various sources Li was using. 


Li, Shizhen. 1573. Compendium of Materia Medica. World Digital Library.
Li, Shizhen. 1573.  "本草纲目." 本草纲目 第八卷 草部 黄花蒿 图解. 2017. Accessed May 31, 2021.

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