By Einav Keet
Billie Holiday used to tuck a magnolia flower behind her ear before she got up to warble in front of huge audiences. The fat white blossoms added to her beauty, of course, but they may also have helped calm her stage fright. After all, Holiday’s trademark fashion accessory came from a plant that Traditional Chinese Medicine has long used for its anxiety-easing properties.
Indeed, magnolia’s claim to fame rests on far more than being Mississippi’s state flower. Herbalists in China have used both the bark and flower of the magnolia tree for 2,000 years to treat a range of conditions, and now this herbal ingredient appears in the formulae of several products. To sort out all of magnolia’s medicinal properties, we turned to Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, a registered herbalist and dietitian-nutritionist in Eugene, Oregon.
MAGNOLIA BARK (Hou po)
Often noted for its pleasant fragrance, the bark used in TCM comes from Magnolia officinalis. “The bark is a warming remedy that increases circulation in the torso,” explains Khalsa. “It speeds up digestion, so it is used for the indigestion of fullness and constipation.”
An herbalist will prescribe a simple liquid decoction or powder capsule. Because it has antifungal and analgesic properties, magnolia bark extract works to treat skin fungi and muscle aches.
MAGNOLIA FLOWER (Xin yi hua)
While there’s more research supporting the use of bark extract, herbalists consider the bud of the magnolia tree beneficial in its own right. They most often use the flower of M. liliflora, which Khalsa says effectively relieves chest congestion and respiratory infection and may help treat allergy-induced asthma.
This ancient herb earns its current repute as a way to relieve anxiety and stress. Researchers say the relatively high concentrations of magnolol and honokiol, two biphenol compounds found in magnolia bark, lower the level of cortisol, the so-called “stress” hormone.
The makers of Relacore and similar weight-loss products use magnolia bark in over-the-counter diet aids, claiming that stress causes metabolic syndrome and subsequent weight-gain. Khalsa says these products are probably safe. Still, he adds, “Whenever we extract constituents from herbs and use them in a nontraditional manner, it raises questions.” Khalsa recommends magnolia bark in combination with amur cork tree bark as effective in reducing anxiety.
The safety of magnolia bark—no known allergies or negative interactions—has brought it increased interest. Only pregnant women should avoid taking the extract. Magnolia has captivated botanists for centuries. Renewed interest in its medicinal value can only enhance its popularity.