When you think about it, it's rather remarkable that something referred to as the "Immortality Herb" could fly under the radar for so long, but such is the case with jiaogulan.
As recent as the 15th century in China, the herb was popularly thought to be little more than a sufficient food supplement during famines, according to Zhu Xiao's Materia Medica for Famine.
This seems like an incredible oversight in an ancient culture so fixated on finding the "Elixir of Life", a sacred mixture the Chinese alchemists said would confer immortality on whomever drank it.
Was the object of their quest actually under their noses the whole time? It's been recorded that some Chinese emperors sent envoys to distant lands in order to find the Elixir.
Imagine being informed, after such a financial undertaking, that the "Immortality Herb" was literally growing like a weed in your backyard, just beyond the palace pagodas!
Part of jiaogulan's obscurity in traditional Chinese medicine can be explained by geography. Traditional Chinese medicine was formulated in the central region of China, whereas jiaogulan is mostly found in the country's southern mountain chains.
Centenarians (people who live over one hundred years) from these remote areas are said to drink jiaogulan tea on a daily basis.
The miraculous aura already draping itself around the "Immortality Herb" is very reminiscent of the old Chinese alchemical legends. While European alchemists were concerned with turning metals into gold and identifying the Philosopher's Stone, the Chinese form of alchemy had more to do with the ultimate search for immortality.
This obsession with prolonging life greatly informed their knowledge of natural medicine and herbology. By the 2nd century BC, it was not uncommon for alchemists to show up in the emperor's royal court claiming to hold the secret to immortality.
The claim was as dangerous as it was alluring: if unable to reproduce the panacea (a solution or remedy for all difficulties or diseases), alchemists could face the death penalty.
The foundation of Chinese alchemy rests in Taoism, a holistic philosophy of living that improved the individual's well-being by bringing him into alignment with the Tao, the universal flow of nature. The principle of the Tao is best illustrated in the Yin & Yang symbol, which shows the harmony of opposites throughout the natural world.
Taoists believed one could reach immortality through pure nourishment of the body combined with right conduct. With conscientious effort, a person could keep old age, disease and death at bay.
The Taoist alchemists also whipped up many a strange elixir for their purposes, often composed of things like jade, mercury, arsenic and melted gold.
While there are no scientific studies showing jiaogulan will help you live forever, it's a natural addition to the Chinese alchemical tradition.
As an adaptogen with numerous benefits, jiaogulan has been demonstrated to regulate stress, which is directly in line with the Taoist emphasis on delaying the effects of aging.
Chinese alchemy also took into account humans' holistic well-being, including the preservation of the body's vital reserves known as Ch'i energy.
The secret to preserving the Ch'i was maintaining a perfect balance between the elements of Yin and Yang, both of which can be found in jiaogulan.
The essence of Chinese alchemy, however, rested in the mindfulness that arose from living a conscious life of virtue and intention. While taking a moment to drink a hot cup of jiaogulan tea in golden silence, it's easy to see how that quality of mindfulness can be cultivated, evolving with every cup.
If we are to believe the old alchemists, perhaps it is the Elixir of Life itself we raise to our lips, the same substance all those gold-melters and mercury-drinkers had been looking for all along. The alchemy, you could say, is now left to us.
"You will multiply your form and transform your shadow, making it into thousands of white cranes...Your longevity will equal that of the Three Luminaries; you will revert to youth and move away from old age. Your complexion will shine like jade, and in one instant you will obtain a radiant spiritual force." - "Book of the Reverted Elixirs in Nine Cycles"