GUIZHOU, April 2, China daily -- Growing the traditional herb on trunks of oak trees has lifted more than a thousand people out of poverty.
It is still early spring in southwestern China's Guizhou province, but the forest in Zhegui village is already filled with vitality: oak trunks covered with orchid-like stalks, with branches swaying in the breeze.
"They're the tiepishihu (dendrobium officinale), a valuable Chinese herbal medicine," said Ruan Jian, deputy manager of Anlong Xicheng Xiushu Agriculture and Forestry. "Zhegui village has sufficient forest coverage, with proper altitude and climatic conditions, which is very suitable for growing imitation wild dendrobium."
A grower displays the dendrobium officinale flowers at a greenhouse in Bijie, Guizhou province. HAN XIANPU/FOR CHINA DAILY
The plant, a member of the orchid family, is known as an important traditional medicine in China since many of its biomedical benefits have been scientifically examined.
Wild dendrobium officinale became an endangered species in the 1980s. However, with the breakthrough of tissue culture technology in the early 2000s, artificially cultivated plants entered the market.
With the expansion in scale, dendrobium planted in some regions suffered from problems such as pesticide residue, elevated levels of heavy metals and poor quality.
"We grow high-quality dendrobium without sabotaging the ecological environment, allowing the villagers to make a living from the mountains," said Ruan, who introduced the medicinal herb to the forest after a thorough investigation.
Oaks in the village have rough, thick barks, rich in water and nutrients, making it easier for the dendrobium to attach to the trees and absorb more nutrients.
Since 2013, the company has planted dendrobium on the tree trunks of more than 267 hectares of oak forest.
Located in Anlong county, in Guizhou's Qiannan Buyei and Miao autonomous prefecture, Zhegui is rich in forestry resources and has a climate that is neither too hot in summer nor too cold in winter.
A worker takes care of dendrobium officinale seedlings at a greenhouse of a traditional Chinese herb cultivation enterprise in Danzhai county, Guizhou province. HUANG XIAOHAI/XINHUA
For a long time, however, transportation difficulties meant the landlocked village could not capitalize on its unique ecological advantage. Growing dendrobium officinale was something villagers, including 44-year-old Chen Jian, had never thought of.
"All the oaks are 'cash cows' now," Chen said. "Natural forests cannot be cut, so we did nothing but protect them in the past. Ever since the dendrobium were 'planted' on the tree trunks, the green hills that we have kept for decades have turned into gold."
Chen, who worked outside of Guizhou for many years, now works in the village as a manager of the dendrobium planting base.
"It's wonderful that our village has an industry now, so I don't have to leave my hometown anymore. Life is much more comfortable than in the past," said Chen, adding that she now earns a monthly salary of more than 3,000 yuan ($446). She can also cycle to work in just a few minutes and can take care of her two children and elderly mother-in-law.
"Without competing with agriculture, planting the dendrobium can liberate good fields," Chen said. "Without harming the grass or trees, we can achieve harmonious coexistence. High mountains and deep forests do no harm to the plant, but can help restore authentic herbs."
The period for flower gathering lasts from April to June every year, and the fresh branch picking period is from November to March. Residents from the neighboring area can all come to work at the base, and a skilled worker can earn up to 500 yuan a day.
"Last year, the salaries we paid totaled more than 4 million yuan," said Ruan, adding that there are always job vacancies at the base. During the peak picking period, more than 200 workers are needed every day.
As the cultivation features "zero chemical fertilizer, zero chemical pesticides, zero hormones, and zero transgenics", dendrobium produced in Zhegui finds a ready market.
Ruan said the finished products, after the drying process, are sold at a market price of more than 15,000 yuan per kilogram. In the markets of Hunan and Fujian provinces, some products are still short in supply and sell for more than 20,000 yuan per kg.
Now, the company is gradually entering markets in Beijing and the Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta regions.
Besides offering considerable economic benefits without felling trees, the dendrobium industry has also accelerated poverty alleviation in Zhegui.
Poverty-stricken villagers are encouraged to work at the dendrobium base and buy shares in the company.
With an average annual income of over 30,000 yuan, a total of 1,691 residents in 445 households in Zhegui have stepped out of poverty, statistics showed.
Starting from Zhegui, dendrobium has made roots in many regions of Anlong county, with the total area of imitation wild dendrobium covering more than 340 hectares.
The saying "plant dendrobium and harvest gold" is common in the area, and Anlong dendrobium officinale, now listed as one of the China Protected Geographical Indication Products, has formed a series of brands.
According to a provincial plan, the area planted with dendrobium will reach 13,333 hectares by the end of this year, allowing more people to benefit from it.