Corydalis: Turkey corn

by Paul Bergner

Medical Herbalism 10-31-94 6(3): 12

No discussion of herbs for pain would be complete without a description of Corydalis spp., Common names are turkey corn and bleeding heart. It is “the most valued herb for pain in Traditional Chinese Medicine,” according to Michael Tierra (Tierra). This herb combines alterative and tonic properties with pain-killing effects, and was used primarily as an alterative in Elecetic medicine, being considered comparable to gentian or berberis as a bitter tonic (Felter, Felter and Lloyd, Ellingwood). The plant part used are the scattered pea-like tubers.

Decentra canadensis was listed as a species of corydalis in the National Formulary, and was the species designated by Felter (Osol and Farrar; Felter; Felter and Lloyd). Ellingwood attributed the name corydalis" to Corydalis formosa. A wide variety of species and nomenclature are used in Asia, including Corydalis formosa, C. yanhusuo, C. bulbosa, C. ambigua, C. remota, C. nakaii (Bensky and Ganble, Kuwaki). Felter discusses the importance of distinguishing D. canadensis from D. cucullaria, noting a characteristic yellow coloring to the material from tubers of D. canadensis.

The properties of the tuber are acrid, bitter, and warming. In contains many alkaloids, including corydaline and at least one alkaloid related to hydrastine (Osol and Farrar). In Chinese medicine it is used for pain syndromes of Blood and Qi stagnation, and is contraindicated in pregnancy (Bensky and Gamble, Ni). In Western terms it is analgesic, antispasmodic, emmenegogue, slightly diuretic) bitter, and tonic. The exact pharmacology of its pain-relieving mechanism is not known.

It has been used for menstrual pain both in Western and Chinese medicine (Bensky and Gamble, Tierra, Ellingwood). Bensky recommends it for traumatic injuries. It is well suited to chronic pain where bitter tonic and alterative actions are also desired. It may be added to any appropriate formula where pain relief is desired.

The dose is 3-20 grams of the powdered herb. Bensky and Tierra both recommend a vinegar extract. Bensky says to “fry in vinegar”, also recommends the alcohol extract. Bensky says that the powdered root is about 1% the strength of opium, and that the combined extracted alkaloids are 40% as effective as morphine. An extract is available as a Chinese patent medicine by the name of Yan Hu Su Zhi Tong Pian. A patent by a similar name Yan Hu Suo Zhi Tong Pian contains the herb, rather than the extract, and is mixed with another herb, Bai Zhi (Naeser).

Conventional medicine used extacted alkaloids of this plant for various purposes in the first half of this century. One constituent, bulbocapnine, has been used as a pre-anesthetic by veterinarians to prevent struggling (Osol and Farrar).


Bensky D, Gamble A. Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica. Eastland Press. Seattle. 1986

Felter HW, Lloyd JU. King’s American Dispensatory Eclectic Medical Publications, Portland, OR. 1898 (reprinted 1983)

Kuwaki T. Chinese Herbal Therapy: A Guide to its Principles and Practice. Oriental Healing Arts Institute. Long Beach, CA. 1990

Naeser MA Outline Guide to Chinese Herbal Patent Medicines Boston Chinese Medicine. 1990

Tierra M. Planetary Herbology Lotus Press. Sante Fe. 1988.

Osol A, Farrar G. Dispensatory of the United States — 24th Edition J.B. Lippencott Company, 1947
  Copyright 2001 Paul Bergner

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