The common gardenia, or Cape Jasmine, is a popular ornamental shrub that will be familiar to many Americans. It is known for its heavily fragrant white flowers and glossy green leaves, and is common across the warmer regions of the U.S. – especially the deep South. Gardenia is native to China, Japan, and Taiwan, but is found in warm climates around the world today.
Practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine use gardenia’s orange, berry-like fruits – known as Zhi Zhi or Cape Jasmine fruit – in a variety of therapeutic blends. These sticky, pulp-filled fruits are harvested in autumn and winter, and used either raw or after being fried and parched. (In the latter, practitioners heat the fruit until its surface has blackened.) Zhi Zhi can be made into a tea or soup for direct consumption, or ground into a poultice or cream for topical applications.
In Chinese medicine, gardenia is considered to have a bitter taste and a cold temperature in the body. Zhi Zi enters the Heart, Lung, Stomach and San Jiao channels. This means that it is useful for driving out illness and dysfunction that stems from excessive heat. Because of its tendency to affect multiple channels, it is one of the safer herbs in Chinese medicine for eliminating pathogenic heat through urination. Heat in the body can present as irritability, sores in the mouth, or jaundice. Damp-heat is especially likely to manifest externally, for example, as eye infections or itchy skin irritations like eczema. Gardenia is also helpful for soothing burns, and helping them to heal quickly.
Because Zhi Zi can act directly on the blood to help cool it, the fruit may be used to stop hemorrhages and speed the healing of traumatic injuries by encouraging the circulation of stagnant blood. It can also treat nosebleeds, blood in the urine, and hematemesis.
In Western medicine, gardenia is used for a variety of seemingly unrelated ailments. Extracts from the fruit have been used to help lower blood pressure; to treat certain presentations of insomnia; to lower systemic inflammation; to combat influenza; and to reduce elevated blood lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides). While Chinese medicine recognizes that these and the many other conditions that gardenia can treat are related to specific patterns of dysfunction, the Western system has yet to take this holistic viewpoint. For now, much of the research into the medicinal effects of gardenia extracts is being performed on animals. Nonetheless, the findings strongly support using gardenia in the same way Chinese medical practitioners have been using it for centuries.
Considerable research, for example, has shown that Zhi Zhi can ease inflammation of the digestive tract. One recent study showed that a certain gardenia extract can both treat and prevent gastritis, a painful disorder of the stomach lining that is marked by:
- Burning and indigestion, especially at night
- Abdominal bloating
- Blood in vomit or in the stool
Many instances of gastritis are caused by H. pylori, a common stomach bacteria. If left untreated, this type of gastritis can lead to stomach ulcers or even cancer. This study showed that, in addition to reducing the uncomfortable acidity associated with gastritis, it also seemed to kill off H. pylori.
Another study found that, remarkably, gardenia may have additional anti-cancer properties. The researchers enthusiastically wrote that gardenia “is highly suggested to be an anti-tumor agent for development in the future.” This is, in part, because it does not harm the liver, kidney or heart, like other cancer treatments.
While researchers have not found any significant side effects resulting from gardenia, like all effective medicines, it is contraindicated in certain circumstances. It should not be used for low appetite or loose stools related to cold. Because it is so effective for hypertension, those with blood pressure problems should work closely with an experienced practitioner to ensure that it does not get too low. This can cause dizziness, fainting, and – in rare cases – may render anesthesia ineffective.
Gardenia is a common and exceptionally safe anti-inflammatory. Speak to a licensed Chinese medicine practitioner if you have any of the conditions mentioned in this article and would like to try a gentle, natural treatment.
Updated December 24, 2016