ISSUE 4  |  Herbs and Potions

Shopper’s Diary: Great China Herb Company in San Francisco

January 27, 2014 11:00 AM

BY Michelle Slatalla

If you weren’t looking for the shop, it would be so easy to miss Great China Herb Co. on a block of storefronts offering designer lookalike handbags; Chinatown postcards; iPhone cases; crates of fresh fruits and vegetables; pearl necklaces; paper lanterns; jade figurines; souvenir t-shirts; tour bus tickets, and late-night Hong Kong style hot pot entrées (cash only). Easy to miss–but what a shame if you did.

One afternoon last week I wandered into the Great China Herb Co., which since 1922 has done a brisk business selling and compounding an extensive selection of hundreds of herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine and met manager Judy Ho-Lam, the third generation of her family to run the Chinese pharmacy. Behind the glass-top counter where herbs are measured, weighed, and mixed is a long wall of fitted wooden drawers dating to the 1920s.

Inside the drawers: hundreds of different ingredients for traditional Chinese medicine treatments–Panax ginseng, apricot kernels, Goji berries, dried honeysuckle, and shaved wild yam root–and each is weighed and bagged to order. An ounce of dried chrysanthemum blossoms is $2; black jujube dates $1, and American ginseng is $7.50 an ounce. A steady stream of customers crowds the counter, waiting to have prescriptions filled.

Can herbs cure what ails you? Western medicine, which has been slow to embrace the 5,000-year-old practice of traditional Chinese medicine, is no longer dismissive. The Federal Drug Administration supports clinical trials of Chinese herbs and more than 37 percent of US hospitals offer complementary and alternative medicine treatments, according to the American Hospital Association.

How should you use Chinese herbs? Says Judy Ho-Lam, “I like to add them to chicken soup.”

Photographs by Michelle Slatalla.

Above: Dried honeysuckle, ready to be weighed at Great China Herb Co.

More than 6,000 plant species are used in traditional Chinese medicine, in different combinations and concoctions. Judy Ho-Lam recommended you do not use herbs for medicinal purposes without consulting a doctor. Many herbs can have negative side effects when taken in combination with each other or by pregnant women, people with allergies, or patients with autoimmune disorders.

Above: Each order is weighed, measured, and packaged by hand at Great China Herb Co.

Above: The wall of drawers and vintage brass scale date to the store’s early days, circa 1922.

Above: Ten common herbs used in Chinese traditional medicine include (Top Row, from L): Wild Yam root; American Ginseng; Panax Ginseng; Goji Berries; (Middle Row, from L) Black Jujube dates; Apricot Seeds; Chrysanthemum flowers; (Bottom Row, from L) Fox Nuts; Honeysuckle, and Red Jujube dates.

Above: Above the wooden drawers, shelves of jarred herbs.

Above: Reishi mushrooms. In clinical studies, reishi mushrooms have proven effective at alleviating lower urinary tract symptoms in men.

Above: The Great China Herb Co. pharmacy, one of the oldest in San Francisco, has been operated by the same family since 1922.

Above: Planning to drive to Chinatown? Park in the underground lot beneath Portsmouth Square Plaza ($3 an hour); it’s a fool’s errand to try to find street parking in the neighborhood.

For more, see our upcoming story, 10 Chinese Herbs to Cure What Ails You and Herbal Essence: Just Add Water.