Pinellia is a small plant, growing only to a height of 6–12 in (15–30 cm) high. It has black shiny stems, and glossy arrowhead-shaped leaves that are highlighted by a silver stripe along the veins. It produces purple tongue-like flowers in late summer.
Athough not widely used in Western herbal medicine, pinellia is particularly useful for chest complaints. It relieves coughs and cuts through mucus, being especially good for sinus congestion and nasal discharge.
It is also recommended for asthma, emphysema, and any form of wheezing, which makes it valuable as not many herbs are suited to the treatment of these particular ailments. It is more widely used in Oriental medicine than in Western natural therapies, however, and it is often an ingredient of herbal mixtures in both Western and Chinese herbal medicine.
Pinellia in Chinese herbalism
Known as “ban xia” or “wu bing shao” to the Chinese, Pinellia is widely used in a variety of combinations in Chinese herbal medicine. They consider that its properties are “pungent, warm, and toxic,” and it is considered a treatment for the areas of the Chinese concepts of Spleen, Stomach, and Lung. Remedies are generally prepared from the roots and stems of the plant and are used to treat digestive and respiratory problems.
Pinellia is most useful for chest complaints, in which it is used in conjunction with magnolia bark or perilla leaf—both common ingredients of Chinese remedies. It is especially useful when dealing with phlegm and congestion, which are both cold in nature. Pinellia is also used in combination with other herbal ingredients for the treatment of nausea and vomiting.
It is considered an antiemetic (nausea suppressant). Depending on the patient’s body type, it may be used with fresh ginger, bamboo shavings, loquat leaf, perilla stem, or amomum fruit. It may also be used with ginseng or jujube.
Chinese herbalists also recommend pinellia for the treatment of swollen glands, and certain cases of goiter, for which it is used in conjunction with seaweed and fritillary bulb. It is recommended for sinus problems in which there is pain and a feeling of fullness across the sinus area.
Pinellia is also used for coughing and asthma. In addition, the Chinese use it for the treatment of scrofula and subcutaneous cysts.
Pinellia also appears to have antidepressant effects. It is the primary ingredient in Banxia Houpu decoction, a traditional Chinese formula that has been used for centuries to treat depression. A recent chemical analysis of this decoction showed that its antidepressant activity is close to that of fluoxetine (Prozac).
A new use for pinellia is its role as an adjuvant (substance given to assist the effectiveness of a vaccine or medication) to a nasal vaccine for influenza.
Researchers isolated a compound called pinellic acid from pinellia, and found that an oral preparation of it measurably increased the effectiveness of a nasal vaccine against influenza without any harmful side effects.
The parts of the plant used, particularly in Chinese herbalism, are generally the rhizomes, or tubers. These should be dug during late summer, early autumn. The bark and fibrous roots are then removed and the rhizomes should be dried in sunlight.
The raw herbs are toxic and must be prepared bydrying them and then frying them in ginger and vinegar to make them usable. The preparation is called fa ba xia and is available in health food stores.
Dosage may be in the form of readily prepared pills, again especially in the case of Chinese herbalism, or in the form of a syrup, in which case the recommended dosage should be followed. The dried rhizome may be taken in doses of 5–10 grams.
Pinellia is best used as an expectorant for congestive chest conditions. Another remedy should be used for dry coughs accompanied by chills, due to its drying and warming properties.
Pinellia should not be used by pregnant women, those suffering from blood disorders, particularly if there is bleeding, fever or conditions which cause heat in the body. Pinellia is used to treat morning sickness, but only under the strict supervision of an experienced herbalist.
A general precaution to observe when using any Chinese patent medicine is to purchase only well-known brands recommended by a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine.
Cases have been reported of incorrect labeling, contamination with heavy metals, and substitution of Western pharmaceuticals for the Chinese ingredients. Any of these occurrences can present a serious health hazard.
Pinellia is registered as a toxic herb in the United States and should be used with caution. The Chinese Materia Medica also acknowledges that it has toxic potential. Never use the herb in its raw form or exceed the recommended doses of herbal mixtures containing pinellia.
Pinellia has been reported to trigger asthmatic attacks in people who have been sensitized to it.
Pinellia should not be taken in conjunction with aconite , as it may increase the toxic properties of this substance.