Anti-Aging Chinese Herbs: Gotu Kola and Goji Berry

A few months ago, I was researching immortality when I came upon an extraordinary story. It told of the oldest living human, a Chinese man named Li Chu Yun who reportedly lived to be over 250 years old. Before you click away from this page in skepticism, it’s said that his obituary was published in the New York Times when he died in 1933 – dating his birth at 1677 (I haven’t spoken to anyone at the Times to back this up, but I totally plan on calling them this week).

Meantime, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by such an amazing story and I had to know right away: what the heck did this guy eat? Lucky for me, he was an herbalist – and his recipe for long life had been well documented.


A Professor of Chinese herbal medicine, Li Chu Yun supposedly lived the first half of his long life in the mountains, studying herbs and their properties. The latter part of his life was devoted to teaching, and at the end of his life it’s said that he was still lecturing. When asked what gave him such long life, he reportedly answered: “nothing has irritated me since I was 40 years old. Because of that, my heart is very calm, peaceful and divinely tranquil. That is why I am free from any illness, and always healthy and happy.”

When I read this I thought,”Nice. This is definitely an answer true to my own heart, but I’m looking for something closer to my own stomach.” Digging a little deeper, I read his secret: 5 grams of Gou Qi Zi (Goji Berries) and a few leaves of Gotu Kola per day. Everyday for 220-something years? I could do that!

Both Goji Berries and Gotu Kola have made modern day news as super herbs. Goji Berries, found growing high in the asian alpine regions, have for centuries been used as a preventative treatment for healthy eyes. They’re also packed with antioxidants, which make them amazing for anti-aging (they’ve even made their way into various skincare products, as well as packaged cereals and bars).

Professor Li Chi Yun attributed Gotu Kola, or Pennywort, to helping him maintain a calm state of mind – in his opinion, the most important longevity factor.  When it comes to Gotu-Kola, the saying in Asia goes :“Two leaves a day, keeps old age away”! Used by Chinese and Indian herbal doctors for thousands of years, Gotu-Kola is a remedy that is still used today to combat stress-related anxiety, and strengthen immunity. Gotu Kola is a unique herb not to be confused with the Kola Nut, which contains caffeine. Gotu-Kola has no caffeine present, and instead contains compounds called triterpenoids that can decrease anxiety and increase mental function.
This April I moved across town, just one block from the gates to Chinatown. Vancouver has one of the largest Chinatown’s in North America, and I knew that if I could find Gotu Kola leaves and Goji Berries anywhere, it would be here. I was settled in my new place I set out to find these two most amazing ingredients for immortality.

It wasn’t to be as easy as I thought.

My first stop was T & T Market, and asian super market chain found across Canada. Here, I thought, I’ll find that Gotu Kola and make salads, pestos and who knows what else – and eat it every day! I was so wrong.

I found myself at the customer service desk, earnestly describing to the clerk (Name: Renee, we’re good friends now) what I was looking for. She looked at me like I was nuts. Likewise the head of the produce department, and the general manager. No one knew what Gotu Kola was (I didn’t even bother asking forGoji Berries).

Back at home I looked up the Chinese name for Gotu Kola online. I found it – and then I found another. Then another. Then another. I found a total of 5 different Cantonese or Mandarin names for one herb! Which one was it? Yikes. Of course I scribbled them all down and headed back out.

At the grocery store I was met with the same bewilderment. What was I looking for, exactly? Was it a vegetable? A fruit? An herb? Which one on the list was I looking for? I had no idea, of course. I was finally directed to the heart of Chinatown, where I could (and should) inquire at one of the pharmacies.

The next day, 4 1/2 year old daughter/co-explorer in tow, I marched through the gates into Chinatown. I had a plan: since there were about a gazillion (ok, more like 20) herbal dispensaries within a 3 block radius, I was going to start with one I had first visited as a teenager (a scant 20 years prior, barely a blip on my soon-to-be-immortal radar). But alas, when I arrived I found it had long ago departed.

And so I took a chance, and headed across the street. We entered a bustling (always a good sign), packed place. I found a woman in a white coat (a pharmacist – also a good sign), and I handed her my well meaning note. (Addendum: I had left the original note at the supermarket, so had to look them all up again – this time finding only 3. They were: Ji Xue Cao, Ping Da Wan, and Fo Ti Tieng). “Ha ha ha,” she laughed at me, “which one you want?”. Sigh. Again.

I explained that I wasn’t sure since I thought they were all the same thing, but that I could draw her a picture of the fresh herb. She led me to the side of the shop, and pulled out some packaging paper. Instead of having me draw, she began to literally throw different herbs onto the page, naming them as she did. Fo Ti looked like a root, not at all like the leaves of the Gotu Kola. That left choosing between the remaining two. My pharmacist began explaining in broken English what each herb looked like, and then began drawing. Instantly I recognized my Pennywort, and chose the corresponding herb (Ping Da Wan – readers take note). When she asked me what I wanted it for, I declared, “my mind” – she advised taking Gingko Biloba instead. “This,” she said, pointing to my pile of herbs, “very powerful for detox. This you want to clean for you”. Perfect, I thought, cleanliness is next to Goddessliness, and I aim to become a Goddess! “I’ll take it!” I shouted, “How much?! One and half pound?!” she yelled, and ushered me to the cash register. I was told I could take as a tea everyday, one handful in boiling water if I wanted. The exchange and advice was so casual, I felt like no one had ever been prescribed this stuff!

1 and 1/2 pounds of dried Gotu Kola later, and I was on my way to immortality. Price: 86 cents (no kidding); value: one half of priceless).

All I was missing were the other half of the recipe: Goji Berries. Skipping up another

street, my daughter and I found a different pharmacy, smaller and far less busy. Jackpot again: There on shelves were bags and bags of the berries – big, small, dark and light colored. And prices ranged across the board from $3 to $40 per bag. I asked a clerk to explain the difference in prices, and received a very polite, “this one better, this one not so good,” very descriptive, thank you. I chose a bag under the classification of “Very Good”, which apparently was just under “Excellent”, and paid my $7. Before I left, I asked again for Ping Da Wan/Gotu Kola, and both shop clerks in the store had no idea what I was talking about. I showed them my stash, which they eagerly fingered, laughing “Ping Da Wan, Ping Da Wan” under their breath. As if it were a pile of special silk thread, meant to wrap someone in the smooth shroud of long life.

At a fruit stand next door, I thought I’d try my luck one more time at finding the raw green herb (Gotu Kola pesto here I wanted to come so badly!). Sadly, no luck – though I managed to attract a crowd of lively shoppers who wanted to see this special dried herb. More laughs, and much tapping on my back with eyes twinkling. Friendly, at least!

Back at home, I unwrapped the herbs. They weren’t all leafy like I would have liked, but looked like a bunch of stems with a smattering of leaves. I tried one, it was very bitter. My tea would require honey – and lots.

I concocted a tea of one handful Gotu Kola and about a gram of Goji Berries (I had broken into the bag and eaten about 200 grams on the way home. Readers, don’t do this – your bum will thank you). It made enough for about 4 small cups, which I approximated to be about 2 – 3 leaves. I left the tea loose in the teapot, and had a few cups.

While it smelled like any herbal shop I’d been to – grassy, herby, slightly mildewy – the taste was mild and pleasant, and not really bitter at all (surprise!). The Goji Berries were plump and a nice touch, too. That

evening, I felt energized but ready for sleep. I felt mentally clear, and relaxed. Placebo effect or not, I felt great.

I think this tea may become an everyday ritual. With a tea like this steeped in ancient wisdom and lore, I think I have only everything to gain (including 200 years).

Of course, I could easily have ordered a tincture online – but then I wouldn’t have had this little adventure to share.

Love, Alicia

PS If anyone knows where I can find the raw Gotu Kola herb, please email me or post a comment! I’m still dying (actually, not really anymore! Haha!) to try eating it!

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