Herb: Chinese Yam

Latin name: Dioscorea batatas

Synonyms: Dioscorea opposita, Dioscorea polystachya

Family: Dioscoreaceae (Yam Family)

Medicinal use of Chinese Yam:

The Chinese yam, called Shan Yao in Chinese herbalism, is a sweet soothing herb that stimulates the stomach and spleen and has a tonic effect on the lungs and kidneys. The tuber contains allantoin, a cell-proliferant that speeds the healing process. The root is an ingredient of "The herb of eight ingredients", traditionally prescribed in Chinese herbalism to treat hyperthyroidism, nephritis and diabetes. The tuber is anthelmintic, digestive and gently tonic. It is used internally in the treatment of tiredness, weight loss, poor appetite, poor digestion, chronic diarrhoea, asthma, dry coughs, frequent or uncontrollable urination, diabetes and emotional instability. It is applied externally to ulcers, boils and abscesses. The tubers are harvested in the autumn and can be used raw or baked. The leaf juice is used to treat snakebites and scorpion stings. The roots of most, if not all, members of this genus, contains diosgenin. This is widely used in modern medicine in order to manufacture progesterone and other steroid drugs. These are used as contraceptives and in the treatment of various disorders of the genitary organs as well as in a host of other diseases such as asthma and arthritis.

Description of the plant:


3 m
(9 3/4 foot)

to October


Habitat of the herb:

Found in an apparently wild situation in valleys and on the slopes of hills in China. Prefers sunny slopes in the wild.

Edible parts of Chinese Yam:

Tuber - cooked. A floury texture with a very pleasant flavour that is rather like a potato. The tubers can be boiled, baked, fried, mashed, grated and added to soups. They store well and for a long time and can also be left in the ground and harvested as required in the winter. This is a top quality root crop, very suitable for use as a staple food. An arrowroot can be extracted from the root, though this is not as good at binding other foods as the starch from D. japonica. The root contains about 20% starch. 75% water, 0.1% vitamin B1, 10 - 15 mg% vitamin C. Fruit. A starchy flavour, it is said to be very good for the health. We wonder if this report is referring to the tubercles.

Propagation of the herb:

Seed - sow March to April in a sunny position in a warm greenhouse and only just cover. It germinates in 1 - 3 weeks at 20C. Prick out the seedlings as soon as they are large enough to handle and grow on in a greenhouse for their first year. Plant out in late spring as the plant comes into new growth. Basal stem cuttings in the summer. Division in the dormant season, never when in growth. The plant will often produce a number of shoots, the top 5 - 10 cm of the root below each shoot can be potted up to form a new plant whilst the lower part of the root can be eaten. Tubercles (baby tubers) are formed in the leaf axils. These are harvested in late summer and early autumn when about the size of a pea and coming away easily from the plant. They should be potted up immediately in individual pots in an unheated greenhouse or cold frame, covering them with about 10mm of soil. Protect them from mice etc and keep the soil moist but not wet. They should come into growth in the spring, plant them out in early summer when in active growth.

Cultivation of Chinese Yam:

Found in an apparently wild situation in valleys and on the slopes of hills in China. Prefers sunny slopes in the wild.

Known hazards of Dioscorea batatas:

Edible species of Dioscorea have opposite leaves whilst poisonous species have alternate leaves.

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.