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Chinese Herbal Identification Study Help

Updated on March 30, 2011

Many students of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are expected to be able to identify different Chinese herbs by sight, smell and taste. In fact, most schools require some form of testing on herbal identification (i.d.) as part of their herbal curriculum. In the beginning, students often learn herb i.d. by functional category according to the Materia Medica (i.e. Spicy Warm, Release the Exterior). Later, students tend to focus on identifying the top 50 or 100 most commonly used herbs. While these are both useful study methods, there is another way to study herb identification that may be even more effective for students - by visual similarities. In other words, students (and practitioners) practice identifying herbs that look very similar to each other.

The following is a useful guide to grouping Chinese herbs by similarities in type, color, texture, and weight.  They appear in random order in the lists below.  Practice pulling out multiple herbs from a single category, laying them side by side, and identifying them by their differences. Note: not all Chinese herbs are cut and prepared the same, so there can be discrepancy in how they appear. Quality also makes a difference, as sulfured and bleached herbs have different colors than their non-treated counterparts.

Leaves, Twigs and Grasses

Zi cao • Fan xie ye • Long dan cao • Fu ping • Sang ye • Bo he • Xi xin • Zi su ye • Huo xiang • Pei lan • Ding xiang • Bai wei • Yin yang huo • Pi pa ye • Yi mu cao • Kun bu • Mo han lian • Ze lan • Hai zao • Jin qian cao • Xian he cao • Ai ye • Bian xu • Qu mai • Bai qian • Zi wan • Jin yin hua • Da qing ye • Pu gong ying • Zi hua di ding • Yu xing cao • Chuan xin lian • Bai tou weng • Bai hua she she cao • Ma chi xian • Qing hao • Wei ling xian • Luo shi teng • Xi xian cao

Dark colors

Rou cong rong • Shu di huang • E jiao • Huang jing • Xiang fu • Zhi shi • Xuan shen • Shen qu • Sheng di huang • Lei wan • Ma bo • San qi • He shou wu • Zhi ke • Xian mao • Gou ji • Zao jiao • Gou teng

Large seeds

Bi ba • Shi jun zi • Fei zi • Cao guo • Da fu pi • Cao dou kou • Bai dou kou • Sha ren • Ba dou • Ma dou ling • Rou dou kou • Lian zi • Lian qiao • Ban xia • He zi • Chuan lian zi • Pang da hai • Nan gua zi


Fo shou • Shi hu • Shi di • Gua lou • Du zhong • Chen pi • Gua lou pi • Qing pi • Ju hong

Little seeds

Hei zhi ma • Hu lu ba • Huai hua mi • She chuang zi • Wang bu liu xing • Fu xiao mai • Dong kui zi • Di fu zi • Che qian zi • Wu wei zi • Qian niu zi • Yu li ren • Huo ma ren • Niu bang zi • Qing xiang zi • Jue ming zi • Hu jiao • Lai fu zi • Wu zhu yu • Can sha • Bu gu zhi • Jiu zi • Ting li zi • Sha yuan ji li • Bai zi ren • Bai jie zi • Su zi • Tu si zi • Nu zhen zi


Lu gen • Hai tong pi • Hou po • Su mu • Tan xiang


Hong hua • Ce bai ye • Xuan fu hua • Yi chen hao • Kuan dong hua • Mi meng hua • Xia ku cao • Jing jie • Xin yi hua • Ju hua • Yuan hua


Wu gong • Fu hai shi • Mu li • Hai ge ke • Chan tui • Shi jue ming • Lu rong • Ling yang jiao • Gui ban • Sang piao xiao • Di long • Long gu • Bie jia • Zi he che


Zhi zi • Shan zha • Jin ying zi • Sang shen • Gou qi zi • Da zao • Shan zhu yu • Wu mei • Long yan rou • Sheng ma

White seeds

Yi yi ren • Ju he • Chuan bei mu • Bai bian dou • Tao ren • Xing ren • Bai guo • Dong gua ren

Larger-dark seeds

gu jing cao • wu ling zhi • gua lou ren • chi xiao dou • ci ji li • gu ya • xiao hui xiang • mai ya • fu pen zi • suan zao ren • yi zhi ren • qian shi • lu dou • dan dou chi • man jing zi • ya dan zi • cang er zi

Minerals and powders

Lu hui • Shi gao • Qing dai • Chi shi zhi • Hu po • Bing pian • Dai zhe shi • Ci shi • Hua shi • Zi ran tong • Ru xiang • Pu huang • Mo yao • Mang xiao


Rou gui • He huan pi • Ma huang gen • Di gu pi • Qin pi

Light-color barks

Mu dan pi • Sang bai pi • Bai xian pi

Light-color/yellow resinous

Bai fu zi • E zhu • Da huang • Huang lian • Huang bai • Huang qin • Jiang huang • Yan hu suo • Yu jin • Ji nei jin • Fu zi • Xie bai • Mai men dong • Sha shen • Jie geng • Tian nan xing • Bai he • Tian ma • Tian men dong • Yu zhu

Red barks

Suo yang • Ye jiao teng • Qian cao gen • Mu gua • Gu sui bu • Qian nian jian


xu duan • dan shen • mu xiang • qiang huo • lou lu • dang gui • qian hu • bai bu

White-chalky & thin paper

Bai shao • Fu shen • Ge gen • Gan jiang • Bai zhi • Bi xie • Tu fu ling • Tian hua fen • Zhe bei mu • Hai piao xiao • Chi fu ling • Shan yao • Tong cao • Fu ling

Light-brown worm like

Tai zi shen • Ba ji tian • Dang shen • Xi yang shen • Huai niu xi • Ou jie • Yuan zhi

Long-cross-cut twigs

Gan cao • Zi su geng • Shan dou gen • Ban lan gen

Light with dark edges

Zhu ling • Shi chang pu • Gao liang jiang • Chi shao • She gan • Bai ji

Dark-dirty roots

Wu bei zi • Huang yao zi • Da ji • Sang ji sheng • Chuan xiong • Hu huang lian

Round-porous woods

Ren dong teng • Wu yao • Ku lian gen pi • Han fang ji • Song jie • Sang zhi • Hai feng teng • Hong teng • Ji xue teng • San leng • Ze xie • Mu tong • Gui zhi • Ku shen

Various brown roots

Chai hu • Fang feng • Yin chai hu • Shang lu • Zhi gan cao • Chuan niu xi • Gan sui • Chang shan • Shi wei • Di yu • Qin jiao • Bai zhu • Huang qi • Zao xiu • Zhi mu • Wu jia pi • Bing lang • Cang zhu • Gao ben • Du huo

Light-weight twigs

bai mao gen • deng xin cao • zhu ru • bai jian cao • dan zhu ye • ma huang • xiang ru • mu zei


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