Market survey on the traditional medicine of the Lijiang area in Yunnan Province, China
Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine volume 18, Article number: 40 (2022)
Traditional markets are important trading places for medicinal plants, and researchers performing market surveys often engage in ethnobotanical research to record the herbal plants used locally and any related traditional knowledge. However, information on market-traded medicinal plants from traditional markets in the Lijiang area of Yunnan is not well documented. This research is an ethnobotanical survey focusing on medicinal plants traded in the traditional markets of the Lijiang area and contributes to the understanding of medicinal plants and related information used by the Naxi people.
Ethnobotanical surveys were performed for two years (2019–2020). Three traditional markets in the Lijiang area were investigated. The methods we used included literature research, participatory surveys and group discussions. The collected voucher specimens were identified using the botanical taxonomy method and were deposited in the herbarium. The data were analysed through the informant consensus factor and use frequency (UF). These medicinal plants were compared with the Information System of Chinese Rare and Endangered Plants from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Those results were in turn compared with the Dongba Sutras and Yulong Ben Cao.
A total of 277 species from 97 families were recorded, with Asteraceae providing the maximum numbers of medicinal plants. Among them, 248 species (89%) were wild plants and 266 species (92.39%) were from the local area. Root (40.43%) was the most common medicinal part. A total of 267 species (96.04%) had a UF value above 0.5. Eighty-three investigated human ailments were grouped into 16 categories. Diseases of the digestive system (166 mentions) were most frequently mentioned in this study. There were 19 species of nationally protected plants in China, including 2 species of first-level nationally protected plants and 17 species of second-level nationally protected plants. A total of 31 species of these medicinal plants can be found in the Dongba Sutra or Yulong Ben Cao.
We surveyed the herbal medicine in the markets covering the Lijiang area, analysing and revealing the resource composition and current market situations. The medicinal plants used by the Naxi people are diverse and are used to treat a wide spectrum of body disorders. There are many wild medicinal plants, and to ensure sustainable development, their natural protection should be strengthened. Knowledge of the medicinal plants recorded in Naxi medical classics has ethnobotanical value and should be further developed.
Herbal medicines have played a distinctive role from the primitive period until today in health care systems [1,2,3]. Approximately 80% of the global population currently uses traditional herbal medicines [4, 5]. These herbal medicines have been used for more than 5000 years in China, and their development is also highly valued there . From 2011 to 2020, China implemented its Fourth National Survey of Chinese Materia Medica Resources to improve the management of these resources . To tap the modern value of ethnic medicine fully and attain a sustainable use of resources, a survey of traditional knowledge related to ethnic medicine was performed . The Lijiang area started the fourth survey of Chinese medicinal resources in 2011. As of June 2021, the 2060 specimens of Chinese medicinal materials had been collected and identified; among them, 85 species of herbs recorded in the Dongba Sutra had been identified .
In areas with abundant ethnobotanical knowledge, market surveys are an important research method for ethnobotanical research on medicinal plants . Many studies of traditional herbal markets have been conducted; for example, a study of medicinal plants sold in traditional markets in southern Ecuador found 160 medicinal plants in 57 families and identified 11 culturally significant medicinal plants according to their fidelity level (FL) . An ethnobotanical survey of medicinal plant species marketed in Mashhad city, north-eastern Iran was conducted to document traditional medicinal knowledge and the application of medicinal plants . Market research in Yunnan Province, China, found that herbs collected at the Dragon Boat Festivals in China are considered to be of higher quality than those collected at other times [9, 12]. In China, traditional markets are considered important places for the trading of medicinal plants harvested by rural villagers, and they also play a social role in exchanging the traditional use of herbal medicine among different cultural and social groups in local areas .
The Naxi people are primarily distributed in Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces and the Tibet Autonomous Region. Among the total population, more than two-thirds of the Naxi live in Lijiang, Yunnan Province . The Lijiang area is located in the Hengduan Mountains, and it has a fertile soil, a suitable climate, a forest coverage rate of 70% and rich resources in terms of Chinese medicinal materials; it is known as the "hometown of medicinal materials". More than 500 species of medicinal herbs grow on Yulong Snow Mountain, which is known as the "treasure house of plants" . The Naxi people are a nation with a long history in China whose ancestors created the splendid Dongba culture. The Dongba Sutra involved many traditional disciplines, such as history, philosophy, religion, music, dance, etc., and it also recorded a great deal of medical knowledge, including Genesis and Chongren Pandi to Find Medicine. Naxi Dongba medicine is a traditional medicine that has been used by the Naxi people for generations to prevent and treat diseases. The Naxi ancestors accumulated a wealth of knowledge and medical literature .
Thus far, there has been a lack of ethnobotanical research on the traditional medicinal plant knowledge of the Naxi people in the Lijiang area. Therefore, based on the theories and methods of ethnobotany, we investigated the medicinal plants of the Naxi people in the Lijiang area to address three objectives: (1) to document traditional knowledge of ethnic medicinal plants in the Lijiang area, (2) to identify potential conservation threats and (3) to record the medicinal plants sold on the market from medical classics.
Materials and methods
The Lijiang area is located in north-western Yunnan Province and the city centre is located at E100°25′ and N26°86′, with a total area of 20,600 km2 (Fig. 1). Apart from the Han nationality, there are 22 ethnic minorities living in Lijiang, among which two-thirds of the Naxi people live in Lijiang. The Lijiang area is near to the Hengduan Mountains, with alternating mountains, river valleys and tableland. The soil is fertile, there are many hours of sunlight and there is abundant rainfall . Chinese medicinal materials are very rich in resources. Here we investigated three markets in Lijiang, namely Zhongyi Market, Xiangshan Market and Xiangjiang Market (Fig. 2).
From August 2019 to December 2020, we completed an investigation of the three medicinal material trading markets in the Lijiang area. The methods that we adopted included literature research, participatory investigation and group discussions. We recorded and photographed the medicinal plants sold in these markets. The collected samples were identified by the taxonomists Haitao Li and Shaohua Yang, according to the Flora of China  and Flora Yunnanica , who undertook census tasks for Yunnan and Lijiang area. The samples were preserved at the Institute of Alpine Economics and Botany, Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences, which is the main storage targets for the general survey of Chinese medicine resources in Lijiang (Codes of Voucher Specimens: NXYC001-NXYC277).
Eighteen folk doctors in Lijiang were interviewed to investigate the application of the medicinal materials. The uses of medicines were organized according to the International Classification of Primary Care (ICPC-2) . According to the results of the fourth national survey of traditional Chinese medicine resources, whether the medicinal plants sold in the markets came from local or other places, wild or cultivated should be indicated. The Information System of Chinese Rare and Endangered Plants (ISCREP)  was used to check whether these medicinal plants belonged to the protected plants.
The Dongba Sutras is a special scripture and is different from the Buddhist Sutras or other classics. The contents of the Dongba Sutras cover history, philosophy, society, religion, language and script, music, art, dance and many other traditional subjects related to Dongba culture. It is praised in academic circles as “the encyclopedia of ancient Naxi people” . Naxi medical culture is an important part of Dongba culture. The Dongba Sutras contain information about the unique medical culture of the Naxi people, and they are the most important documents for studying Naxi medicine. The Yulong Ben Cao was first created during the Ming Dynasty and was written during the Qing Dynasty. It was written in Chinese by Jieshan He, a Naxi person. It was a local herbal work written under the guidance of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory and his personal experience in applying medicines from the Naxi people. It is the product of the combination of Naxi culture and Han culture . Therefore, the medicines from the markets were consulted using these works.
The data collected in this study were analysed and graphed by using Microsoft Office Excel (2010) and RStudio software (4.1.1), including the informant consensus factor (ICF) and use frequency (UF). A quantitative data analysis was conducted using the ICF method and the number of citations. The ICF was calculated as the ICF = (Nur − Nt)/(Nur − 1), where Nur is the sum of plant species used by all the respondents to treat a particular disease and Nt is the number of identical plant species used by all the respondents to treat a particular disease . The use frequency of medicine sold on the market was estimated with the utilization frequency . The UF is calculated as UF = Nm/Ni, where Nm is the number of use reports of medicinal materials mentioned by informants, and Ni is the total number of informants. High UF values indicate that the herb is used more frequently in the region.
Results and discussion
Floristic diversity and UF
In the market, we encountered 277 species of medicinal plants whose base sources have been identified (Table 1). Among the 277 medicinal individuals, the original samples include fungi, lichens, bryophytes, ferns, gymnosperms and angiosperms, of which angiosperms were the most diverse, accounting for 91% (Fig. 3A). The plants belonged to 97 taxonomic families according to the Flora of China and the Flora Yunnanica. The dominant plant family was Asteraceae, with 31 species representing 11.12% of the total species, followed by 14 species of Rosaceae and Lamiaceae (5.05%) and 10 species of Orchidaceae and Polygonaceae (3.61%) (Fig. 3B). Other studies on traditional markets of the Naxi people of the Lijiang area also recorded Asteraceae as the family with the highest number of medicinal plant species, and there were many varieties [26, 27]. This result indicated that the Naxi medicinal plants in Lijiang involved a wide range of families, which was consistent with the rich plant resources and biodiversity in Lijiang, indicating that the Naxi people in Lijiang had a degree of systematic and comprehensive understanding and use of these medicinal plants. Combined with the fourth national survey of traditional Chinese medicine resources, among the 277 species of medicinal plants, 133 species (48.01%) were found to be distributed in the city, 54 species (19.49%) were distributed along the Jinsha River, and 14 species (5.05%) were distributed on Yulong Snow Mountain, including Rhodiola fastigiata, Pyrola forrestiana, Aconitum brachypodum, etc.
Identifying medicinal material with high UF values indicated its abundant use and widespread knowledge among the local communities . In the present study, the UF ranged between 0.3 and 1 (Table 1, Table 2). Among the samples, there were 25 species (8.99%) with a UF value of 1, such as Achyranthes bidentata, Aconitum carmichaelii, Rodgersia sambucifolia, etc., 123 species (44.24%) with a UF value above 0.8, and 267 species (96.04%) with a UF value above 0.5, which showed that most of the medicinal materials sold in the market had a high degree of identification and utilization and were also commonly used medicinal materials.
In this market survey, the types of medicinal parts included the root and rhizome, stem, bark, leaf, fruit, seed, whole plant, flower and others, all reflecting the diversity of medicinal parts of plants used by the Naxi people in Lijiang. The root and rhizome are the main organs for organic storage. There were 112 species of medicinal plants from the root, accounting for 40.43% of the total number of species investigated, followed by the whole plant, with 68 species, accounting for 24.55%; by contrast, there were relatively few leaves and seeds (Fig. 4). These data were similar to those of previous studies . However, the root and whole plants from wild plants are not conducive to the sustainable development of medicinal plants, so it is necessary to promote artificial planting.
Medicinal applications and ICF
According to the ICPC-2, the herbs sold at the herbal market were used to treat 83 human ailments, which were divided into 16 categories (Table 3). This type of medicine can have multiple therapeutic uses. For example, Oxalis corniculata can be used to treat musculoskeletal system and connective tissue diseases, gynaecological system diseases and skin and subcutaneous tissue diseases. This variety shows the diversity of herbs for use by the Naxi people in the Lijiang area. Among the 16 medical categories, most medicinal materials were used to treat diseases of the digestive system (59.93%), followed by diseases of the general and unspecified system (57.04%), respiratory (46.21%), female genital (42.24%), skin (39.35%) and musculoskeletal systems (34.30%). Among the medicinal plants provided by different respondents, there are very few (only one or none) identical plants that can be used to treat the same group of diseases. This observation showed that there are many differences among the Naxi people in the methods for treating a specific disease, i.e., that they have low consensus about disease treatment methods. There are two possible reasons for this: (1) because the Naxi people live in biodiversity-rich areas, the abundant medicinal plant resources provided them with a wide choice of medicinal plants to use , and (2) different Naxi folk healers may have different degrees of understanding of the same disease.
The informant consensus factor (ICF) is a measure of information diversity. The higher the ICF value is, the greater the difference among plant species used in the treatment of a given disease, and the lower the ICF value is, the smaller the difference among plant species used in the treatment of a disease . The highest ICF values were recorded in this study for meningitis N71, malignant neoplasms stomach D74, dementia P70 (ICF = 2.0) and infectious disease A78 (ICF = 1.50), followed by tracheitis R77, sinusitis R75, question of pregnancy W01, prostatitis Y73 and syphilis Y70 (ICF = 1.33). Further analysis indicated that most of the plant species were used for pain general/multiple sites A01 (Nur = 99, Nt = 27), followed by rheumatoid arthritis L88 (Nur = 96, Nt = 10), skin disease other S99 (Nur = 78, Nt = 11) and menstruation irregular/frequent X07 (Nur = 74, Nt = 8). These values indicated that these four groups of diseases are common in areas were the Naxi people live, and Naxi folk healers have a high consensus on the treatment of these diseases.
Herbal medicine recorded in the Dongba Sutra
The Dongba Sutra recorded topics such as philosophy, history, religion and medicine and is used as a type of encyclopaedia for the Naxi community. Among the topics, many medical classics reflect the contents related to life and health in ancient times, which are the simple understanding of life, health and medicine of ancient people and were of great significance to the study of the origin of medicine. The Dongba people who practiced the primitive religion of the Naxi people mastered Dongba words and accumulated the initial knowledge and long-term practice of medicine . In addition, they formed unique diagnosis and treatment theories and developed valuable experience in disease prevention and treatment. In this market research, 19 of 277 medicinal materials were recorded in the Dongba Sutra (Table 4, Fig. 5). All the medicines recorded in the Dongba Sutra are formulas, and the Naxi Dongba is compatible with medicines used to treat diseases. For example, to treat serious colds, the Naxi Dongba uses Bupleurum candollei and Pyrola forrestiana (Fig. 5A). Pueraria lobata and Melia azedarach can be used to treat malnutrition in children (Fig. 5B), Rheum palmatum, Rheum likiangense and Wolfiporia cocos can be used to treat urinary infection (Fig. 5C), and Reineckia carnea, Sambucus williamsii and Drynaria delavayi can be combined to treat dyspepsia (Fig. 5D).
Herbal medicine recorded in Yulong Ben Cao
The Yulong Ben Cao was compiled based on the environment, climate, eating habits and other diseases where the Naxi community is situated. It is a key source on Naxi medicine . In this market research, 12 of the medicinal plants were recorded in the Yulong Ben Cao (Fig. 6), namely Cynanchum otophyllum, Rodgersia sambucifolia, Swertia punicea, Geum aleppicum, Salvia trijuga, Polygala arillata, Senecio scandens, Polygonum paleaceum, Rumex nepalensis, Arctium lappa, Ajuga forrestii and Valeriana jatamansi. Among these species, Rumex nepalensis is also recorded in the Dongba Sutra. In the Dongba Sutra, Rumex nepalensis is mashed, mixed with honey and smashed green onions to treat men with hernia (Fig. 7). In the Yulong Ben Cao, the indications for Rumex nepalensis are different, and it is primarily used for treating skin eczema, sweat spots, acute tonsillitis, constipation and other ailments . In the theory of TCM , the indications for Rumex nepalensis are roughly the same as those recorded in Yulong Ben Cao. The Yulong Ben Cao was written in Chinese by an author from the Naxi people and is the product of the combined culture of Naxi medical culture and Han medical culture . Lijiang is in north-western Yunnan Province at the junction of Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet. It is a multi-ethnic place. In addition to Han and Naxi, there are 21 ethnic minorities, such as Tibetan, Bai and Yi. Some medicinal materials are also used by these ethnic minorities, such as Rumex nepalensis. Tibetans use it to treat sores and ulcers, as recorded in the Jingzhu Materia Medica . The Bai people use it to treat constipation, gastrointestinal haemorrhage, eczema, etc. . The Naxi people also have this usage . These phenomena reveal the interrelationship between the Naxi medical culture and the medical culture of the surrounding ethnic groups.
Among the original plants from the 277 species of medicinal materials, 266 (92.39%) were from the local area, and 21 (6.92%) were from other places. Among them, 258 species (89.27%) were completely wild, 15 species (5.19%) were cultivated, and 16 species (5.54%) were wild or cultivated (Fig. 8). This observation was consistent with the trend in the survey results from the Honghe area of Yunnan Province, where wild medicinal plants accounted for 80.1% . The possible reason was that most of the sellers surveyed during the two surveys were local rhizotomists.
According to the ISCREP , 2 of the 277 medicinal materials were listed as first class nationally protected plants in China (Table 5), and they were Tiepishihu and Renshen. This finding was also consistent with a survey of the medicinal materials market in Dali Prefecture, Yunnan . According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, Ginkgo biloba and Panax ginseng are "critically endangered" species. Dendrobium officinale was not recorded. Fortunately, both Ginkgo biloba and Panax ginseng can be obtained through cultivation. There were 17 species listed as second-class nationally protected plants in China (Table 5), of which 15 species sold in the markets of Lijiang were completely taken from wild plants. It is worth noting that Psammosilene tunicoides, Bletilla striata, Gymnadenia conopsea and Rhodiola crenulata were classified as "endangered" species according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, but all those currently sold on the Lijiang market were collected from the wild; Dysosma versipellis and Gymnadenia orchidis belong to the "vulnerable" species according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and all those sold in the Lijiang markets were also collected from the wild. Although Paris pubescens and Cistanche deserticola were classified as "endangered" species according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, they could be cultivated and obtained at present. Reasonable utilization and effective protection for these wild species are extremely vital; otherwise, they might be endangered in the near future.
The ecological ethics of Naxi people have positive significance for the conservation of wild plant resources
The study area, the Lijiang area in Yunnan Province of China, is well known for its exceptional richness in medicinal plants. We recorded 277 species of medicinal plants being traded on the markets involving 97 families, such as Asteraceae, Rosaceae and Ranunculaceae. The medicinal parts, including the roots and rhizomes, stems, skins, leaves, fruits, seeds, whole plants, flowers, etc., showed abundant plant diversity and rich local knowledge in this area. Yunnan Province is called “the kingdom of animals and plants”, for possessing extremely rich biological resources. There are many medicinal plants, especially the species in the Asteraceae, Ranunculaceae and Liliaceae. Systematic research on these key families would help to develop new medicinal resources and protect endangered species.
The ancestors of the Naxi people attached great importance to the harmonious development of man and nature. The Naxi people consider human beings and nature to be brothers. This ecological ethics concept laid the foundation for the Naxi people to live in harmony with nature; it shows the most primitive and simple concept of environmental conservation by human beings . Experienced medicinal gatherers attach great importance to the sustainable use of resources. They generally pick large herbs rather than small herbs. Most of them collect herbs when the seeds are mature and sow seeds in the surrounding area to be able to renew them naturally . However, with the increase in usage, the demand for trade in medicinal plants may increase in the coming years, leading to the over harvesting of wild plant species and possibly even endangering natural populations. In this study, we found that most of the medicinal plants use roots and whole plants, including the second-level nationally protected plants Rhodiola fastigiata, Bulbophyllum odoratissimum, Dysosma versipellis, Spiranthes sinensis, etc., and they are all wild plants. Over harvesting is not conducive to the sustainable development of these plants. The sustainable management of wild medicinal plants is very important to protecting their diversity and preventing their extinction, especially for species that are frequently used in traditional medicine. Therefore, on the one hand, we should strengthen the punishments for indiscriminate digging, and on the other hand, we should engage in the artificial domestication and cultivation of large and precious medicinal materials to alleviate the rapid decline in the current medicinal plant resources.
Naxi medicinal plants are versatile and have local characteristics
In terms of disease treatment, the herbal applications by the Naxi people almost covers common diseases, including dyspepsia, the common cold, menstruation disturbances, fractures, etc. as well as incurable infectious diseases such as rabies and malaria in addition to current research hotspots such as cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Common local diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and external injury are also addressed. During the use of medicinal plants, a versatile feature is very common; for example, Aconitum brachypodum can be used to treat cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. Toddalia asiatica can be used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, external injury, gastrointestinal bleeding and menstruation disturbances.
The Naxi people constantly learned and absorbed the culture and production technology of the various surrounding ethnic groups while communicating with them, thereby enriching and developing their own culture and promoting their own national progress and development . In the Dongba Sutra "Genesis" (Chuang Shiji), it is mentioned that the Tibetans Bai and Naxi were closely related. In the Naxi creation epic "Chongmo Chongze", it is also mentioned that the Naxi and the Tibetans are brothers . This recording also showed that the Naxi people had close exchanges with Tibetans, Bai nationalities and other ethnic groups. In this study, we found that the Naxi, Bai and Tibetans also share similarities in medicinal plant applications. For example, both the Naxi and Tibetans use Rheum palmatum to treat constipation, dyspepsia, diarrhoea, jaundice, carbuncles, amenorrhea, etc. In addition, the Naxi people also use Rheum palmatum to treat vomiting, gastrointestinal haemorrhages, tumours and other diseases, and the Tibetans also use it to treat infectious diseases, fever and other diseases.
Naxi medical classics record the excellent culture of the Naxi people
The "Dongba religion" is the most primitive religion of the Naxi people. Various cultural activities and phenomena, such as Dongba words, sutras, rituals and music making up the Dongba religion, are called the Dongba culture . Many medicinal plants and their uses were recorded in the Dongba Sutra. In this market survey, a total of 19 medicinal plants were recorded in the Dongba Sutra, including Bupleurum candollei, Pyrola forrestiana, Rheum palmatum, etc. In the survey, 19 medicinal plants were all found to be from the local area of Lijiang. There were common medicinal materials used by people from ancient times to the present. The Naxi people have a long history of recognizing and using medicines.
The Yulong Ben Cao was a local herbal book written under the guidance of traditional Chinese medicine theory and combined with the personal experience of the Naxi people . In this market survey, a total of 12 herbs were recorded in the Yulong Ben Cao, including Cynanchum otophyllum, Rodgersia sambucifolia and Swertia punicea. Some of them were also recorded in the Dongba Sutra, such as Rumex nepalensis. However, the usage of Rumex nepalensis in the Yulong Ben Cao is different from that in Dongba Sutra. The usage of Rumex nepalensis in the Yulong Ben Cao is closer to that of TCM. Thus, Naxi medicine has absorbed the practice and theory of TCM to promote the formation and development of a national medicine.
The development of Naxi medicine has gone through a long historical process. There are records of medical knowledge in many ancient Dongba Sutra works. With the integration of various ethnic cultures, Naxi medicine has been deeply influenced by various cultures, such as Han, Tibetan and Bai. Unlike other ethnic medicines, Naxi medicine is a multicultural medical theory that has absorbed the practices and theories of TCM, Tibetan medicine and other ethnic medicines and combines the characteristics of its own ethnicity.
This research is the first contribution toward understanding, from an ethnobotanical point of view, that medicinal plants play an important role in the lives of the Naxi people. We studied the records of medicinal plants sold in the markets in the Dongba Sutra and Yulong Ben Cao. The traditional knowledge of medicinal plants recorded in these medical classics is the result of ancient humans' understanding of nature. From the perspective of the relationship between humans and nature, the content they contain has important ethnobotanical value. However, traditional medicine knowledge and medicinal plants are greatly threatened by rapid economic development for various reasons. Therefore, policies and practices to protect medicinal plants and their associated traditional knowledge are necessary.
Availability of data and materials
All the data generated or analysed during this study are included in this published article (and its supplementary information files).
Informant consensus factor
International Classification of Primary Care
Information System of Chinese Rare and Endangered Plants
Traditional Chinese Medicine
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We are grateful to all the folk doctors and workers (Zhihua He, Chengfeng He and Qingning Yang) from the Lijiang Medical Association of Minorities for their help during the study. Thanks to Jinfang Zhang, Zijun Sha, Caifeng Li, Hua Guo, Chunhui Qu, Yuyan Wang and Rao Fu from Minzu University of China for assisting in the market research.
The research was supported by finance from the Accreditation Scheme from State the Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine (Grant no. GZY-KJS-2018-004), the Independent Scientific Research Project of Minzu University of China (Interdisciplinary Research Special Project) (Grant no. 2020MDJC04).
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Zhang, M., Li, H., Wang, J. et al. Market survey on the traditional medicine of the Lijiang area in Yunnan Province, China. J Ethnobiology Ethnomedicine 18, 40 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13002-022-00532-w
- Lijiang area
- Medicinal plants
- Traditional knowledge
- Medicinal market
- Dongba Sutra, Yulong Ben Cao