Astragalus (astragalus membranaceus)

The root of this perennial member of the bean family has been used in China as a medicine for thousands of years. Native to Mongolia and northern and eastern China, where it grows in dry, sandy soils, astragalus is considered a very important tonic plant, providing endurance and a feeling of well-being to those who take it.

Astragalus membranaceus

Plant profile

Common Names: Astragalus, Huang Qi, Milk Vetch, Yellow Leader

Description: Multistemmed, 1- to 2-foot-tall perennial; compound leaves composed of 12 to 18 pairs of bright green leaflets; yellow pealike flowers in long clusters; fibrous branching rhizomes

Hardiness: To Zone 6

Family: Fabaceae

Flowering: Early to midsummer

Parts Used: Root

Range/Habitat: Native to Mongolia and northern China; cultivated in other Asian countries and North America

Culinary use

In China, mildly flavored astragalus is a common culinary ingredient. During cold and flu season, add pieces of the sliced root to soups and stews during cooking; remove them before serving.

Medicinal use

Astragalus is one of the most important plants in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and is a common ingredient in many Chinese medicine formulas. Its yellow root contains compounds that stimulate your immune system, promoting the formation of antibodies, increasing the production of T cells, and boosting the supply of infection-fighting white blood cells.

It is also used in TCM to treat diabetes. It has been shown to be a cardioprotective species and is used to treat heart disease and angina. Combined with other Chinese medicinal plants, astragalus has been studied as an adjuvant to conventional chemotherapy in the treatment of some cancers. Some herbalists suggest using it as part of a treatment for certain viruses and pneumonia.

Caution: Do not use this species if you are pregnant or nursing.

How to grow it

Astragalus thrives in very well-drained soil and full sun. To improve germination, scarify the seeds before planting them directly in your garden, after all danger of frost has passed. If you start the seeds indoors, be careful when transplanting the seedlings—astragalus roots are sensitive to injury. Astragalus is drought tolerant, so do not overwater it.

In areas with harsh winters, apply a winter mulch to protect the root. In fall of the plant’s third to fifth year, you can begin to harvest the roots. Remove the leafy top growth and lateral roots, then clean the main root and allow it to dry. After several weeks, slice the root into smaller pieces and allow them to dry completely.