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Sticky rice tea


Medicinal Plant Species Substitution and Tourism: A Case Study of “Sticky Rice Tea” in southern Yunnan, China

Rachel S. Meyer1 and Selena Ahmed2


  1. The New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY 10458
  2. The Sackler School of Biomedical Sciences, Tufts University, Boston, MA 02111


Plant uses by people are dynamic.  Within a single plant family in which there may be hundreds of species being exploited by people, one can sometimes look toward the utility of related species to form hypotheses about the trajectory of how a plant could be used in different ways over time.  Shifts can be stimulated by changes in society. This note illustrates this phenomenon of use shifts of certain species within the Acanthaceae through the lens of ecotourism development in China.


Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan province is a well-known cultural and eco-tourism destination in China. Situated in the Indo-Burma hotspot of biodiversity (SITE), the government has promoted eco-tourism in Xishuangbanna since the 1970s with the creation of protected nature reserves following severe deforestation in the 1950’s and 1960’s (Wen and Tisdell, 2001). Xishuangbanna’s inhabitants consist of primarily Dai and Han socio-linguistic groups that mostly live in the lowlands. In addition, several Indo-Tibetan and Mon-Khmer socio-linguistic groups, including the Akha, Bulang, Lahu, and Jinuo inhabit the montane forest areas. The delineation of vast forests areas as nature reserves, influx of tourists, and commercialization of natural resources for the tourist market has ultimately transformed the livelihoods of local socio-linguistic groups.


The lowland regions [QUESTION: It seems that Baphicacanthus also grows in the uplands….from my interviews it also grows in montane forests….it is called “mountain tea” in Jingping, Honghe and saw it in Nanoshan in the uplands] of Xishuangbanna offer a tropical evergreen forest climate that has made possible the rich agricultural landscape optimal for the production of bananas, rice, rubber, and tea.  It is also well-known as a major source of crude plant materials for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM; see Lee et al., 2008 and refs therein).  Rice paddies, fallow lands, and community forests have all been utilized for cash crop production in addition to foraging and agroforestry. Limitations on land use, a growing population, and promotion of tourism have together incentivized many households, particularly around Jinghong, the capital of the Dai Autonomous Prefecture, to offer services to incoming tourists as a source of livelihood (Wen and Tisdell, 2001). 

Tourism is Xishuangbanna draws mainly Chinese Nationals in search of leisure, ‘authenticity’, and ‘the exotic’ (SITE). In the lowland tourist areas, local dishes of Dai foods at restaurants and guesthouses and ecotourism parks with performances of traditional dance among buildings constructed in the traditional Dai architecture serve as tourist attractions. Souvenirs are sold that are made of local plant materials, particularly dyed textiles and tea. 

Just as cotton has largely replaced other forest plants from which cloth fiber was traditionally derived, synthetic indigo dye, or even indigo sourced from the worldwide major indigo producing plants Indigofera tinctoria and Indigofera amblyantha (Fabaceae), have filled the niche for dye once occupied by the indigenous plant Baphicacanthus cusia (Nees) Bremek. (Acanthaceae). B. cusia was the indigenous source of indigo pigment for fabric dyeing.  Other pigment molecules, including indirubin, an indigo isomer, are also present in its extract. It had been grown as a dye crop in Xishuangbanna through agroforestry practices (Bramwell, 1987; Rerkasem, 2005). Because of increased reliance on exports and other species of indigo, it was assumed that B. cusia is no longer grown in the region nor wild harvested.

Baphicacanthus cusia has a distribution in lowland moist habitats ranging from the Himalayan foothills in India to Taiwan and is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as well as Dai Traditional Medicine. In China, most cultivation of B. cusia for medicinal use is in the provinces of Fujiang, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Hainan, Jiangxi, Jiangsu, Yunnan and Zhejiang (SITE). In Yunnan, Baphicacanthus cusia is distributed in Xishuanbanna, Dali, Yuanjing, Ximeng and Jinggu Prefectures (SITE). Baphicacanthus cusia is widely used by Dai, Bulang, Miao, Jinuo, Lisu, Yao and Bai nationalities in Yunnan Province (SITE) as a medicine and dye. The whole plant can be used for medicine while the stem and leaf are used for dyeing.

Both aboveground and underground parts of Baphicacanthus cusia are used as a febrifuge, depurative, as well as to treat mumps, headache, and sore throat caused by excess heat (Bensky et al., 2004; Huang and Williams, 1999). The main medicinal functions of Baphicacanthus cusia in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are to treat malnutrition, indigestion syndrome, clearing heat, and detoxicating and cooling the blood (CITE). In the classic TCM treatise Yao Xing Lun, Baphicacanthus cusia is noted for curing malnutrition and indigestion syndrome of children and for deinsectization (CITE). A docoction of Baphicacanthus cusia is noted to clear heat and detoxicate in the classic TCM treatise Ben Cao Shi Yi (CITE). Baphicacanthus cusia plays a noteworthy role in the medicinal practices of the minority socio-linguistic groups in areas where this species grows in Yunnan. For example, Baphicacanthus cusia is traditionally referred to as Huang Man by the Dai of Xishuangbanna and refers to the highest medicine enshrine for the Buddha (CITE). According to the Xishuanbanna Dai YaoZhi, the Buddha Gumalabie passes this plant to all living creatures as to be a good remedy for curing heating. The Dai also use Baphicacanthus cusia for deinsectization and clearing heat according to the Dai Yi Yao. Miao communities of Yunnan use the roots and leaves for treating parotitis and abscess caused by heat according. The Dian use the roots and leaves for treating parotitis, tonsillitis, cholecystitis, stomatitis and abscess. According to the medicinal treatises, Da Li Zi Zhi and Zhong Wa Yao, the roots and leaves are used for treating snakebites and external injuries by the Bai and Wa. The Dong, Zhuang, and Yao groups use the whole plant for treating influenza, stomatitis, meningitis, pneumonia, external injuries, and women’s postpartum backache according to the Gui Yao Bian.

The active compounds of Baphicacanthus cusia include the indirubin and isomers.  Similar uses have also been attributed to other indigo-yielding plants, including Polygonum tonctorium Ait (Polygonaceae), Isatis indigotica Fort. (Brassicaceae), and I. tinctoria (Watson et al., 2010). While it is uncertain which utility of this B. cusia came first, medicine or fabric dye, the two uses highlight that numerous applications were explored long ago by people and several applications became popularized. 

The earliest records of indigo dye use in China date back to the Xia dynasty (2700-1600 BC)(Li, 1983; Hann, 2004). Earliest records of indigo dye in the Yunnan region date to _________. Other indigo producing species, such as Polygonum tinctorium, were widespread in use throughout China 3000 years ago (Keightley, 1983), but the early records for use of B. cusia as a dye have not been identified. Written records of B. cusia use for medicine date back only to the Chinese Materia Medica Bencau Gangmu written in the 1500’s. Because of this recent date, and because the medicinal applications for multiple indigo-containing dye plants essentially identical, it is more likely that the dye use was first, followed by medicinal use discovered through association. There is evidence of minor utilization of other indigenous Acanthaceae species for dye as well as for medicine. These species may have been adopted in based on similarity association.

A non-traditional application?

            The economy of Xishuangbanna is rapidly changing with an ecotourism boom and expanded commercialization of natural resources.The Dai park “Jinghong Daizu Yuan” that charges ~15 USD to enter is seeing an influx of visitors in pursuit of exotic food, dance, and scenery.  No longer a region dependent on cash crops and forest products as it was before, B. cusia has turned up, surprisingly, as an herbal tea.  A few leaves and pieces of stem are added to a pot of black or pu-erh tea.  The result is a slightly cereal flavor, which likely explains the common name of “nuomi xian cha” which translates to “sticky rice fragrance tea”. It is perplexing that B. cusia, that no longer has a local market for dye or medicine, is still in use, but in a way that was not a prominent use in the past. 

The reason for why this new application evolved, where Baphicacanthus cusia is an herbal tea, merits speculation. Perhaps the use of B. cusia as an herbal tea or tea flavoring was a minor secondary use of the plant when it was grown or harvested for dye. Another theory is that it masks the taste of low-quality tea offered to tourists. Or, perhaps the new use is somehow instrumental to the ecotourism industry in Xishuangbanna.  The unique flavor imparted by adding a few leaves to a pot helps make the tea drinking experience unique from other areas of China, which may be attractive to tourists because it distinguishes Dai people from Han people. The latter theory is based on trends observed in minority areas where tourism or increased Han visitors influenced the creation of new cultural practices. One well-known example is the relatively recent redevelopment of sky burial in Tibet.

            Research was conducted in Xishuangbanna Prefecture between 2008-2012. The authors visited the Jinghong Daizu Yuan in separate trips during multiple seasons from 2008-2009. This park is located in Ganlanba, which is about 30 km from the Jinghong city center. Baphicacanthus cusia was being used to flavor tea in many of the households that welcomed visits or functioned as small restaurants with home cooking.  However, the dried leaves are not sold to tourists. Only in the farmers’ market on the block of the nearby Ganlanba bus depot was a woman with large bags of the dried leaves and stems that had a characteristic bluish gray hue. Some was purchased by the authors and confirmed to have the same flavor when added to steeping tea. To confirm the identity of the tea because only fragments of the plant were available, the rbcL region, typically used in DNA barcoding, was sequenced.  The sequence was confirmed to be Baphicacanthus cusia based on 98% similarity to the published Genbank sequence GI:XXXXXX. During other excursions to other parts of Yunnan and Xishuangbanna, we found the herbal tea being sold fresh and dried in Nanoshan Township of Xishuangbanna and in Jinping Township of Honghe Prefecture.





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