For over one millennium, goji berries have been used traditionally as food and medicine in eastern Asia. In recent decades, it has become increasingly popular globally. However, the biocultural development of goji is poorly known. The botanical origin of goji is controversial: in many but not all modern regional or international quality standards, L. barbarum is accepted exclusively as the botanical origin of goji.
Aim of the study
Focusing on historical, biogeographical, botanical, phytochemical and pharmacological data, the overarching aim is to understand the biological origin of goji's historical uses, as well as whether the two species can be used interchangeably.
Materials and methods
The taxonomic literature on L. barbarum and L. chinense were analysed, followed by a study of botanical specimens and fieldwork. Historical herbals and gazetteers were employed to define the historical producing areas and medical properties of goji. An identification of the species used in history was carried out. In a final step the phytochemical and pharmacological literature on the species was compared.
Results and discussion
Due to their morphological similarity and different accessibility, fruits of both L. barbarum and L. chinense have been used interchangeably as food and medicine at least since 682 CE. While the fruit of L. barbarum was recognized to be superior in quality, the fruit of L. chinense was commonly used as an equivalent because of its easier accessibility. Cultivation of L. barbarum in China since 1960s improved its availability, which likely lead to its exclusive use as source of goji in China. The long-term safe use with no reported major safety concerns supports that these two species both are useful sources for medicinal Lycium.
Medicinal plants had been used traditionally long before they were named in scientific nomenclature system. Therefore, the understanding of traditional herbal knowledge and the adequate use of those traditional medicines require a reliable identification based on archival records. This study developed an approach for the identification of species used historically, with an integrated analysis of specimens, historical herbals, and national gazetteers. Additionally, their different chemical profiles and pharmacological activities indicate that they should not be used interchangeably. Further scientific evidence is required for their safe and effective use.
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