Chrysanthemum and goji are a classic herbal pairing in traditional East Asian medicines. Chrysanthemum on its own clears heat, either for fever or chronic inflammation, and brightens the eyes; goji is warmer, nourishing the blood and the root of the body’s health, the kidney. In appropriate combination they can be taken daily by anyone to preserve health, and ease eye strain – a symptom most of us digitally connected humans have nowadays, that we share with the bibliophile scholars of old.
I have chosen this herbal pairing for my site because, unlike most East Asian medicines, this remedy approaches universally beneficial status. Bensky, Clavey, and Stoger, in the third edition of their Chinese Herbal Medicine, quote from the oldest reconstructed guide to Chinese herbs, the Divine Husbandman’s Classic of Materia Medica, when discussing chrysanthemum (ju hua 菊花): “Taken over a long time… it will facilitate the qi and blood, lighten the body, and prevent aging,” (58-59). Chrysanthemum is sweet, slightly bitter and cool, and versatile in its actions – treating ascending or descending qi, draining excess or tonifying deficiency. Goji is neutral in temperature, sweetening the bitter cooling of the Chrysanthemum, and nourishing of Kidney yin and Liver blood – two substances that decline as we age. Despite these properties, it doesn’t cloy/overpower in the way most yin tonics can, and thus can be safely taken as an anti-aging herb – balanced with a bit of fresh ginger in individuals with weak digestion.
Beyond medical usages, chrysanthemum is a flower held in high cultural regard in Asia. Blooming in the cold of autumn, its beauty is associated with the coming cold of winter: the year’s death and renewal. We are all born into, in a Buddhist or Christian sense, the suffering and pain of a too-brief existence. The challenge, then, is aging and enduring our trials with grace and good-humor. Chrysanthemum has been a symbol of this for centuries, and is especially associated with the poet Tao Yuanming (陶淵明, 365-427). In his poem “Dwelling in Peace on the Double Ninth” – written drinking chrysanthemum wine, when the flowers were in full bloom – he writes:
Our span is short, desires are many / so mankind delights in living long.
With star signs the day and month arrive / and all, by custom, love today’s name.
The dews are cool, sultry winds cease / the air is crisp, the heavens’ bodies bright.
No shadows remain from departed swallows / but sounds aplenty from wild geese coming.
Wine has the power to drive off cares, / chrysanthemums curb declining years.
How can a man in a cottage of thatch / do nothing but watch seasons sink toward an end?
My dusty cup shames the empty jar / these cold-weather flowers blossom in vain
I pull my gown close, sing calmly alone / then, lost in my musings, deep feelings rise.
The quiet life has indeed many joys / there is something achieved in just lingering on.
—Translated by Stephen Owen, Anthology of Chinese Literature,315.