Ophiopogon is a perennial herbaceous plant that is native to the Orient. Under the name mai men dong, its tuberous root is a highly prized and indispensable part of Chinese herbal medicine. In addition, this plant's graceful, grass-like leaves and tiny bell-shaped flowers have made it a popular landscaping ground cover. It is commonly known in the Western world as lily-turf or Liriope spicata, and is a member of the lily, or Liliaceae, family.
The tufted mounds that ophiopogon forms are usually about 1 ft (30cm) in height and diameter. On closer examination, the individual leaves of the plant resemble straps 0.25 in (0.6 cm) to almost 2 in (5 cm) in width and up to 16 in long (40.6 cm), depending upon the species. Ophiopogon leaves are evergreen and have a leathery appearance. Ophiopogon japonicus, the species most used in Oriental herbal medicine, has leaves with serrated edges. Subspecies of ophiopogon include several with a great variety of ornamental leaves, ranging from all-green to green with white, cream-colored or golden edges. The more decorative ophiopogon plants, such as Liriope muscari (blue lily-turf) or Christmas tree lily-turf, have larger lavender, blue-violet, or white bell-shaped flowers in clusters growing from upward-reaching spikes 4–6 in (approximately 10–15 cm) high. The flowers appear in mid-summer, and are followed by shining blackberry-like seeds that remain throughout the winter.
Ophiopogon grows best in warm climates, but is remarkably adaptable. There are species of this plant that grow and thrive in either full sun or full shade. Ophiopogon is able to tolerate a very wide variety of adverse conditions, including extreme heat, soil that is dry even to the point of drought, or high humidity. There are both erect and creeping types of ophiopogon. Liriope spicata, also known as Ophiopogon japonicus, is a creeping variety with fast-spreading, slender tuberous roots that can prove to be quite invasive. It forms a rhizome with smaller fibrous roots growing outward; the tuber itself has a bittersweet taste. Ophiopogon japonicus is also better able to tolerate cold than other varieties. All types of ophiopogon are propagated by division.
Ophiopogon japonicus has long been used in Oriental herbal medicine. The earliest reference to its use is in the Shennong Bencao Jing, or Herbal Classic of the Divine Plowman. The oldest known edition of this classic was printed around A.D. 300. Ophiopogon is thought to be effective in clearing away what Chinese medical practitioners call "heat in the heart" and irritability. Ophiopogon is an antiseptic that is particularly useful in the healing of mouth sores. Its sedative qualities provide relief for insomnia, heart palpitations, anxiety, and rest-lessness. It is similar to the many chemical sedatives used in Western medicine in that it reduces muscle spasm.
Ophiopogon also moistens the mucous membranes of the body by stimulating the production of mucosal fluids. Moisturizing of the lungs reduces coughing. In the intestines, increasing the level of moisture improves elimination. Because of these qualities, ophiopogon is used in formulas to treat constipation, dry throat, and chronic dry bronchitis. Because ophiopogon has been shown to lower blood sugar and regenerates necessary cells in the pancreatic isles of Langerhans, it is also considered useful in treating the fluid imbalance caused by diabetes, as evidenced by excessive thirst and urination.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture phytochemical database developed at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Maryland, the following varieties of ophiopogon all have medicinal uses:
- Ophiopogon japonicus is the species of this plant most commonly used in Oriental herbal medicine. It is useful in treating intestinal, kidney, and liver problems. It has been found to stimulate the production of milk in nursing mothers and to reduce inflammation. It has cough suppressing properties, and is used in treating nearly all lung-related illnesses, including bronchitis, whooping cough, tuberculosis, hemoptysis (coughing up blood), sore throat, laryngitis, and cough. A chemical present in the plant has shown effectiveness in the treatment of lung tumors. It is also used to treat fever, constipation, and stomach problems.
- Ophiopogon ohwii is used for its cough suppressant qualities. It is also an expectorant, a cardiac tonic, and an anti-inflammatory agent.
- Ophiopogon pendulus has diuretic properties that are useful in reducing fluid retention in the body caused by either heart or kidney disease.
- Ophiopogon spicatus is considered an aphrodisiac, a treatment for digestive disturbance, and a galactogogue, or stimulator of lactation in nursing mothers.
The slender, tuberous roots of ophiopogon are dug in summer, and the smaller, more fibrous roots are cut away. The rhizomes are dried in the sun, then pulverized and stored in a cool place in an airtight container. The usual daily dosage in Chinese herbal medicine is 4–10 g, when the plant is used in an infusion or decoction.
It is important to remember that Chinese herbal medicine is based upon individual prescriptions developed for each patient and his or her unique symptoms. Chinese herbs should not be taken either individually or in combination formulas unless a practitioner of Chinese herbal medicine has been consulted.
It should also be remembered that coughing is a normal and helpful bodily reaction to irritation of the airway or lungs. It is designed to expel such harmful substances as excess phlegm or irritants from the lungs. Cough suppression can actually prevent or postpone recovery. It is persistent coughing that needs treatment. Moreover, a cough is merely a symptom of some other bodily illness, as are digestive problems. Therefore, ophiopogon preparations should not be taken for an extended period of time, and then only for dry, ticklish coughs. These preparations should only be used for temporary relief of symptoms. If the patient is bringing up a lot of phlegm, ophiopogon will make the cough worse. A physician should be consulted for persistent cough or gastrointestinal problems.
Ophiopogon does not appear to produce serious side effects when used as directed.
Molony, David, and Ming Ming Pan Molony. The American Association of Oriental Medicine's Complete Guide to Chinese Herbal Medicine. New York: Berkley Publishing, 1999.
Phillips, Ellen, and C. Colston Burrell. Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Perennials. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, Inc., 1993.
Michigan State University Extension Service. "Ophiopogon Japonicus—Dwarf Mondo Grass." http://www.msuophiopogon.htm.
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