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Ethnobotany of medicinal plants used by the Yao people in Gongcheng County, Guangxi, China

Abstract

Background

Gongcheng Yao Autonomous County (Gongcheng) is typical for the Yao people in northeastern Guangxi, southern China. The Yao people have a long history of using medicinal plants. In this study, we used ethnobotanical methods to collect traditional knowledge regarding herbal medicines in Gongcheng. Our study provides fundamental data for developing and applying local ethnic medicines and their protection.

Methods

Ethnobotanical data were collected from 103 villages in nine townships from 2014 to 2018 in Gongcheng. A total of 352 informants (279 male and 73 female) were interviewed through semi-structured interviews, key informant interviews, and guided field walks. All the informants were local inhabitants aged between 28 and 101 years of age, of which 40 key informants were selected based on the recommendations of knowledgeable elders and local medical institutions. The informant consensus factor (ICF) was used to evaluate the degree and importance of differences in medicinal plant species and calculated the relative frequencies of citation (RFC) for the recorded medicinal plants.

Results

Data from 352 local healers were collected for the study. The Guanyin and Sanjiang townships had the highest distribution of per capita healers (Pch), while the Gongcheng, Lianhua, and Ping'an townships were relatively lower. Of the 352 local healers, more than half were older than 60 years of age and therefore faced the problem of suitable successors and potential loss of traditional medicinal knowledge. There are 12 types of diseases treated by local healers in the study area, and most of the types had a high ICF value. The highest ICF (0.80) was reported for digestive system disease, followed by urinary system disease (0.78) and nervous system disease (0.77). Traumatic injury and orthopedics, digestive system, and rheumatic disease are the most common ailments. The RFC value calculated in 33 medicinal plant species (with an FC of more than 5) ranged from 0.024 to 0.056. The higher RFC values included Kadsura longipedunculata, Schefflera heptaphylla, Plantago asiatica, etc. The most commonly used medicinal method was decoction; plasters, creams, and some form of moxibustion and cupping skills were locally practiced, but only rarely. The local healers used 306 medicinal plant species (116 families and 255 genera). Herbal plants were most commonly used among these, with whole plants and roots being favored.

Conclusion

The Yao people are highly skilled at using medicinal plants to treat various diseases in Gongcheng. Their treatment methods are varied, convenient, and efficient. Due to the impact of urbanization and economic development, knowledge of traditional medicine is under threat, with declining numbers of local healers and a lack of suitable successors. In order to protect and inherit Yao's traditional medicinal knowledge, it is necessary to educate young healers and to protect biodiversity.

Background

Traditional medicine currently plays an important role in human health and the fight against the disease. It is common for local healers to excel in using local medicinal plants for disease treatment, especially in mountainous regions or areas inhabited by ethnic minorities where transportation is difficult [1,2,3,4,5,6]. The most significant advantage of local healers is their proximity and the ability to treat diseases in a timeous manner. Furthermore, they are familiar with the patient's situation and living environment, offering effective treatment [7, 8]. Local healers play an important role in protecting traditional knowledge and biodiversity and local people's health, the development of medicines, and their application [9,10,11,12]. In recent years, research regarding medicinal plants and their traditional uses has been increasing worldwide [13,14,15,16,17,18].

The Yao nationality in China has a long history. Following thousands of years of survival and development, this indigenous population has adapted to the natural environment, and they have created their own medicinal knowledge database, which has played a significant role in their livelihood [19,20,21,22]; consequently, it has become an important part of the treasure of Traditional Chinese Medicine. However, historically, the traditional Yao medicinal knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation solely through oral communication. Therefore, considerable Yao medical experience has been lost owing to the natural decline of aged Yao healers. Some Yao medical experience has disappeared before being recorded by the scientific community [23, 24].

The Yao people are one of the major ethnic minorities in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (Guangxi). According to the sixth census, the Yao population in Guangxi has reached 1.49 million, accounting for more than half of the total Yao population in China. Gongcheng Yao Autonomous County (Gongcheng) is an important gathering place for the Yao ethnic group in China and is the second-largest Yao Autonomous County in Guangxi. Here, the Yao population is greater than 148,000, amounting to about 60% of the total population of the county [25], and most parts of the Yao villages are located in the mountains (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

a and b Yao mountains; c and d Yao villages and the surrounding farming fields

The Yao nationality has a profound cultural heritage and simple folk customs; moreover, many traditional cultural activities have a distinctively local color, for example, the tradition of the "Panwang Festival", "Powang Festival", "Guandi Temple Fair", "Meishan Cultural Festival" and "River Lantern Festival" remains annual customs, and of particular note is the "Herbal medicinal market during the Dragon Boat Festival".

In recent years, during investigations into the herbal medicinal market during the Dragon Boat Festival of Gongcheng, previous authors found that most of the sellers of medicinal materials were middle-aged to older adults, with few young adults [26, 27]. This imbalance is a potential threat to the inheritance of Yao medicine and, therefore, the loss of traditional knowledge. China Traditional Yao Medicine and Yao Ethnic Medicinals in China [28, 29] are two books published regarding the investigation and study of local Yao medicine in Guangxi. Most of the commonly used prescriptions collected in these two books came from Jinxiu Yao Autonomous County and Du'an Yao Autonomous County in Guangxi. However, these two books rarely included Bama Yao Autonomous County and Fuchuan Yao Autonomous County in Guangxi. The local Yao medicine prescriptions in Gongcheng were also not included in previous investigations.

While advocating the protection of biodiversity and sustainable utilization of resources, attention should also be paid to the protection and inheritance of national traditional knowledge and culture. Nowadays, some traditional knowledge of Yao people from Gongcheng is not documented scientifically and faces disappearing danger. The traditional knowledge regarding herbal medicines in Gongcheng should be preserved as soon as possible. The study aims to grasp the distribution of local healers in Gongcheng and their demographics, analyze the characteristics of the local healers' composition and relate with the traditional knowledge. The current study also used ethnobotanical methods to investigate records of traditional knowledge and experience of ethnic medicine in Gongcheng, obtain first-hand information, record the medicinal plant species used and the types of diseases treated by local healers, analyze the characteristics of species composition and explore the uniqueness of their use methods. This study will provide preliminary data for the development and application of local ethnic medicine and promote the protection inheritance of traditional medicinal knowledge.

Methods

Study area and the people

Gongcheng is located in the northeastern region of Guangxi (Fig. 2). The geographical coordinates are between 24°37′–25°17′ N and 110°36′–111°10′ E. The longest horizontal distance from east to west is 56 km, and the longest longitudinal distance from north to south is 75 km. The county's total area is 2149 km2. The administrative level of Gongcheng is county, township, village in descending order and managed by government or committee, so this county has jurisdiction over 117 administrative villages in nine townships [30].

Fig. 2
figure 2

A sketch map of the study area

The county is located in the Nanling Mountain area, one of southern China’s priority areas for biodiversity conservation. Mengzhu Mountain, Dupang Mountain, and Haiyang Mountain surround the territory, and centrally, there is a huge river corridor scattered with karst landforms of peak clusters and depression (Fig. 3). The vegetation of Gongcheng belongs to the mid-subtropical evergreen forests or mixed evergreen deciduous forests in mountain areas, and bush in karst areas [26, 30]. Influenced by the subtropical monsoon climate, the territory has formed a complex and unique microclimate ecological environment that has nurtured and preserved rich medicinal plant resources that support the Yao people and their medicinal culture.

Fig. 3
figure 3

a The distribution of "Pch" in the townships of Gongcheng; b The topographic map of Gongcheng

The local language (Guiliu dialect) is widely used throughout the county and is a common language used by all ethnic groups in Gongcheng. The language family of Yao language varies from place to place and used just in limited areas by older Yao people. The Yao people in Gongcheng has not special or unified religion, just the common worship of nature or ancestral belief, and set some temples, shrines or statues for worship in each village. The Yao people in Gongcheng mainly live on traditional agriculture, e.g., rice, corn. The economic forests are very important source of finance in mountain areas, such as Chinese fir, pine, moso bamboo, and oil-tea camellia. [26, 30].

Due to remote mountainous areas and poor economic condition, those traditional remedies of medicinal plants are the most important therapeutics for the Yao people in Gongcheng. The traditional knowledge of medicinal plants with long utilization history had supported their livelihoods. The local healers in Gongcheng have developed their own ethnomedicinal knowledge and treat patients in their villages or near villages. These local healers were hardly by formal or informal trained, and their medical knowledge is mainly acquired through family inheritance or another healers and self-study. The specialized healers are engaged in treatment work in private clinics or hospitals in township, but they are in the minority. The non-specialized healers are mainly engaged in agriculture and treat patients at sparetime.

Data collection

After getting agreements from the local government and local healers, a total of 352 informants (279 male and 73 female) were interviewed in the study area, of which 312 were selected using the snowball technique, and 40 key informants were specifically selected based on the recommendations of knowledgeable elders and local medical institutions. The key informants were local famous healers who have rich medical experience, good curative effect and were important custodians and participants of the knowledge of indigenous medicine. All informants were local inhabitants aged between 28 and 101 years. The ethnobotanical investigations were carried out to collect data regarding medicinal plants used to treat human diseases following the methods of the Yao people.

We used semi-structured interviews, key informant interviews, and guided field walks to collect information. The ethnobotanical data were collected from 2014 to 2018. The questionnaire included the name, gender, nationality, age, family address, contact information, and other information of the local healers, as well as the diseases that can be treated effectively. Investigation and interview of key informants included information regarding the diseases, compatibility of medicinal materials, processing and treatment methods, taboos, and means of succession of information. In addition, the key informants were asked to perform preference ranking exercises. We followed the local Yao healers during their collection of herbs in the field and recorded the names, usages, and parts of the medicinal plants used.

Specimen collection and identification

Field observations were performed with local healers to identify the morphological features and habitats of each medicinal plant species. Voucher specimens and photographs of the local medicinal plants were collected from the field, herbal medicinal market, or home gardens, and the life forms and habitats of these plants were recorded. For future reference, voucher specimens were deposited in the Herbarium of Guangxi Institute of Botany (IBK), Guilin, Guangxi, China.

Voucher specimens and photographs were identified and confirmed according to Flora of China, Flora of Guangxi, and other botanical websites such as https://www.cvh.ac.cn/, http://www.nsii.org.cn/2017/, http://www.iplant.cn/frps, and https://www.ipni.org/. Finally, specimens that were difficult to identify were discussed with consulting taxonomic experts, and the final inventory of medicinal plants was completed.

Data analysis

The ethnobotanical data were analyzed and summarized using a Microsoft Office Excel sheet and statistical methods. The key informants shortlisted the plants in this study, and then, their importance in managing diseases was discussed. The preference ranking method was used to rank the diseases, application methods, medicinal parts, and the life forms of the medicinal plants used by the local Yao healers in the study area [31].

The data per capita healers (Pch) of each township were calculated for the data of each township healer (person) divided by the population (thousands) of the township. If the Pch was equal to 1, that indicated one healer for an average of 1000 people. The formula used was

$${\text{Pch}}\;(\permil) = {\text{H}}({\text{p}})/{\text{P}}({\text{t}})$$

The informant consensus factor (ICF) was used to analyze the difference of medicinal plant species used by different healers to treat a particular disease category [32]. The formula is listed below:

$${\text{ICF}} = \left( {{\text{nur}} - {\text{nt}}} \right)/\left( {{\text{nur}} - 1} \right)$$

where nur is the sum of the number of plant species used by all informants to treat a particular disease category, and nt is the total number of plant species commonly used by all informants to treat a particular disease category.

The relative frequency of citation (RFC) was used to evaluate the important plant species used by local healers to treat various diseases. The formula is listed below:

$${\text{RFC}} = {\text{FC}}/{\text{N}}$$

where FC is the number of prescriptions mentioning the use of plant species, and N is the total number of prescriptions in this survey [33].

Results and discussion

Distribution of local healers in the study area

Information on a total of 352 local healers was collected through our survey, which was distributed across 103 villages in nine townships in Gongcheng (Fig. 2). According to the statistics at the township level, Limu had the largest population of 54 local healers, followed by Sanjiang (48), Guanyin (47), and Xiling (45). Forty-three local healers were in Jiahui, 35 in Lianhua, 35 in Gongcheng, 23 in Ping'an, and 22 in Longhu (Table 1). The value of per capita healers (Pch) was calculated, and the highest value was noted in Guanyin (4.90‰), followed by Sanjiang (3.33‰), Longhu (2.10‰), Jiahui (1.63‰), Limu (1.23‰), and Xiling (1.16‰), and the lowest values were in Gongcheng, Lianhua, and Ping'an, at around 0.60‰ (Table 1, Fig. 3). At the village level, the Shuibin village in Guanyin township has the most local healers with 24 people, followed by Shitang village in Guanyin township with 16 people and Sanlian village in Sanjiang township with 11 people. There are near 30 villages with just only one or two local healers from Gongcheng, Lianhua, and Ping'an townships.

Table 1 The number of local healers in townships within Gongcheng

From the data, we found that the Gongcheng, Lianhua, and Ping'an townships had relatively low Pch, at about 0.60‰. Because the Gongcheng township is the seat of the county government, and the Lianhua and Ping'an townships are close to the Gongcheng township, these three townships have undergone the highest degree of urbanization, modern construction and economic development in recent years and are more influenced by modern Chinese and Western medicine. Hence, the number of local healers in these townships today is lower. The Guanyin and Sanjiang townships now have the highest distribution of Pch, reaching 4.90‰ and 3.33‰, respectively. These two townships are typical minority nationality townships, with the population of Yao nationality accounting for more than 90%. These results indicate that these areas with a denser population of Yao nationality had greater preservation of local healers and medicinal knowledge and must as key areas for the protection inheritance of traditional medicinal knowledge. In addition, the Guanyin township is located in the extreme north of Gongcheng and the Du Pangling Mountains. The Sanjiang township is located in southeastern Gongcheng and south of the Yindian mountains. These two townships are located in remote mountainous areas, are populated with many Yao people, and have a relatively low degree of economic development. With continuing urbanization and economic development, the succession and inheritance of local healers and traditional knowledge have been disregarded in recent years. Therefore, the protection and inheritance of traditional knowledge should be strengthened as quickly as possible, especially in Guanyin and Sanjiang townships.

Demographics of the informants

Among the 352 local healers in the study area, 279 (79.26%) were male, and 73 (20.74%) were female. This is owing to the conservative inheritance of Yao medicinal knowledge, and the custom of passing knowledge on to male members, rather than female members of the society; a matter which is also related to the fact that women are predominantly engaged in housework and agricultural work, while men are mostly engaged in physical and technical labor. Concerning age, the oldest healer was a 101-year-old man from Changjia village in Limu township, who had been a healer for more than 60 years. The youngest was a woman aged 28 years, a healer for nearly 5 years. The ages were mostly between 40 and 79 years (n = 308), while only 23 healers were 28–39 years old, and only 21 were 80–101 years old. Notably, the number of young healers was very low (Fig. 4). Of all healers, those aged 60–69 years were the highest number (27.56%), followed by those aged 70–79 years (24.15%). We counted the number of healer who begin to learn medical knowledge in each age group and found that 20–29 age group was the most (n = 138), followed by 30–39 age group (n = 93) and 40–49 age group (n = 59) (Fig. 4). The number of people in the 20–39 age group is 231 (65.63%), which shows that most healers in Gongcheng begin to learn medical knowledge from the young age. In contrast, the current statistics about healers of all age groups show that young healers are in the minority. Therefore, more than half of the local healers were exceeding 60 years, and the lack of succession and inheritance of Yao medicine is evident. One reason for this phenomenon is that the manner of succession is quite conservative, in that passing on knowledge to external sources and female members are generally restricted. Furthermore, there is no written language of the Yao ethnic group, so the inheritance depends on oral transmission, and unfortunately, the great traditional knowledge has not been passed down by written records. Moreover, young people are resistant to learning traditional knowledge, as they feel it is outdated, useless, and a source of only meager income. They are more willing to travel great distances for work that will give them a higher income or learn Chinese medicine and Western medicine, which are generally more acceptable to the public. This phenomenon also occurs in other areas, with some facing the serious threat of losing their inherited traditions [7, 8, 14, 34, 35].

Fig. 4
figure 4

a The number of healer in each age group in Gongcheng; b The number of healer who begin to learn medical knowledge in each age group in Gongcheng

Most of the famous and old healers in this survey are excellent representatives of local Yao healers in Gongcheng. Over their lifetimes, they continually accumulated practical experience from their therapeutic activities and also absorbed the experience of predecessors. This precious wealth of Yao medicine plays an important role in inheritance, innovation, and development. Furthermore, it is because of the accumulation and inheritance of the experience of Yao medicine from past generations that Yao medicine has developed and remained relevant in modern times. Therefore, these practices should be actively encouraged, and in-depth investigations and excavations should be implemented to avoid the decline in successors and loss of precious traditional experience.

Diseases treated in the study area

After sorting and statistical analysis, 352 local healers demonstrated a good history of treating diseases, which could be classified into 12 categories based on the eight systems of the human body and the medication characteristics of the Yao people. Gongcheng had the largest number of healers (176, 50%) who were successful in treating traumatic injury and orthopedics, followed by digestive system disease (101, 28.69%), skin and facial disease (93, 26.42%), and rheumatic disease (91, 25.85%) (Table 2).

Table 2 The types of diseases treated by local healers

Traumatic injury and orthopedics were the most common diseases that local healers effectively treated; these were related to local people being engaged in agricultural and forestry production; this type of labor commonly results in mechanical injuries, knife wounds, and fractures. Rheumatism, hyperostosis, traumatic injury, lithiasis, skin diseases, gynecological disorders, pediatrics, snake bites, orthopedics, and liver disease were commonly mentioned in the survey. According to the results, more than 30 local healers effectively treated these common diseases effectively, especially rheumatism and hyperostosis, which were resolved by more than 70 local healers. As these diseases are common, local healers must treat them timely, convenient, and efficiently to improve outcomes.

The public has recognized the unique curative effect of Yao medicine through the historical accumulation of experience with such diseases. Gynecological and pediatric diseases are common in the daily lives of the Yao. The various gynecological drugs commonly used include Campsis grandiflora, Hedyotis caudatifolia, Nuphar pumila, Saururus chinensis, and Dichroa febrifuga. Furthermore, pediatric drugs including Primulina fimbrisepala, Ilex rotunda, Siphonostegia chinensis, Polygala polifolia, and Striga asiatica are potent and convenient for Yao healers who prefer to use fresh herbs as materials.

Disease incidence is often closely related to the local environment and climate, as well as ethnic activities and lifestyles. According to the survey, Gongcheng had the largest number of healers who could effectively treat rheumatic disease because Gongcheng is located in the south of the Nanling Mountains, where the high mountains, dense forests, high temperature, rainy weather, wind, cold, and damp heat are conducive to the development of rheumatism. Moreover, the ancestors of the Yao people frequently migrated to higher elevations with dense forests in the mountains. Life in these mountainous regions is tough, and traumatic injuries, snake bites, and insect bites are frequent occurrences; in addition, skin diseases and orthopedic diseases such as fractures, lumbocrural pain, and muscle or bone pain are locally common. Thus, the local healers' ability to treat such diseases has increased. Similar results have also been found in other minority areas in southern China [7, 8, 36, 37].

Informant consensus factor

The ICF was calculated for each disease category, ranging from 0.44 to 0.80 (Table 3). The highest ICF (0.80) was reported for digestive system disease with 20 species and 98 use reports, followed by urinary system disease (0.78) with 9 species and 37 use reports, nervous system disease (0.77) with 8 species and 32 use reports, skin and facial disease (0.75) with 19 species and 74 use reports, and pediatric (0.75) with 9 species and 33 use reports, etc.

Table 3 Informant consensus factor (ICF) by categories of diseases in the study area

The higher the ICF value, the higher the diversity of plant species used by healers to treat a particular disease category. The lower the ICF value, the more concentrated the plant species used by healers to treat a particular disease category [32]. Most disease categories had a high ICF value (near 1). The digestive system disease had the highest ICF value; this was probably related to the local healers obtaining a diversity of medicinal plants from wild habitats, while having little communication with other healers, during the conservative inheritance of medicinal knowledge. There were 110 plant species used to treat traumatic injury and orthopedic diseases, and this was likely related to the local people being prone to traumatic injury, hyperostosis, knife wound and fracture when engaged in agricultural and forestry production. Therefore, the healers were required to use a variety of plants for treatment when dealing with these emergencies. The lowest ICF was for circulatory and rheumatic disease, which was probably related to the long treatment cycle of these diseases. During long-term treatments, local healers had a high consensus on the species of medicinal plants used.

Methods of treatment and ethnic characteristics

In all, 248 prescriptions were collected through interviews with local healers; their methods of treatment mainly included nine types: decoction (114, 45.97%); external application (50, 20.16%); medicinal liquor (26, 10.48%); stewing with meat (17, 6.85%); soaking (17, 6.85%); external washing (16, 6.45%); acupuncture and moxibustion cupping (4, 1.61%); plaster (3, 1.21%); and cream (1, 0.40%) (Fig. 5). There are several methods of external application, including fresh herbs directly smashed for external application; dry herbs ground into a powder to spread on the affected area; or herbs mixed with tea oil, tung oil, vinegar, or secondary rice water for external application. Medicinal liquor has always been a preferred method by local healers, and many also prefer to use their secret recipes; medicinal liquor is easy to prepare, and its ingredients can be more effective in this form. It also has antiseptic and antitoxic effects, which can delay hydrolysis and enhance the stability of many drugs. During our investigation, we also found that some Yao medicine methods were more distinctive, for example, stewing herbs with pig tripe, pig feet, pig bones, snails, frogs, or fish.

Fig. 5
figure 5

Treatment methods used by local healers in Gongcheng

Local healers believe that when fresh herbs are directly used for general decoction or external washing without being specially processed, their medicinal power is fierce and toxic side effects may occur, especially in the use of Dayao (a type of traditional medicine defined by local Yao people). When herbs are mixed with meat, bone, or other compatible stews, their power is lessened, and the toxicity of some fresh herbs can be reduced after prolonged decoction. The decoction is the most common method of herbal remedy preparation and is used widely by other ethnic groups [7, 8, 38,39,40,41,42,43]. In addition, a small number of local healers make plasters and creams, and some use moxibustion and cupping skills for treatment, but this is quite rare.

In the current study, the local healers used rosin, tung oil, or Huangdan and other auxiliary materials to make ointments such as rheumatic bone pain ointment, Wuliu ointment, and other commonly used ointments for the treatment of rheumatic bone pain, scalds, knife wounds, and other diseases. Furthermore, it is worth noting that local healers made Liaodiaozhu cream (a type of cream prepared mainly from the plant Cynanchum paniculatum), wherein the crystals precipitate from the freshly picked herbs after washing, kneading, and sealing in a bottle. This cream is widely popular for its effect, convenience, and ease of preservation in treating common diseases such as knife wounds and styes.

Diversity of medicinal plants used in the study area

In this investigation, 306 medicinal plant species were identified in 248 prescriptions of local healers in Gongcheng, belonging to 116 families and 255 genera. The results provided each species information, including scientific name, family, Chinese name, local name, habit, medicinal part, usage, and voucher specimen number (Table 4). The statistical analysis of families and species is shown in Table 5. At the family level, Asteraceae contained the most species (25 species), followed by the Fabaceae (17), Rubiaceae (12), Rutaceae (9), Rosaceae (8), Lamiaceae (8), Malvaceae (8), Polygonaceae (8), Vitaceae (7), and Primulaceae (6). Similar results have been shown in other areas of China, where many species belonged to these families [7, 27, 35, 36, 44,45,46]. These ten families accounted for 8.62% of the total number of families, but the number of species included accounted for 35.29% of the total number of species. Although there were many medicinal plants commonly used by local healers in different families, only a few families were highlighted. There were 49 families with 2–5 species, accounting for 42.24% of all families; the remaining 57 families contained only one species.

Table 4 Inventory of medicinal plants traditionally used by Yao people in Gongcheng
Table 5 The diversity of medicinal plants used by local healers in Gongcheng

In general, the distribution of medicinal plant species in various families was relatively scattered, and the selection of medicinal plants by local healers was highly diverse, indicating that local healers were competent at using a variety of medicinal plants to treat various diseases. Hence, the mountains with ideal habitat and high biodiversity are called the "Yao mountains" (Fig. 1), and the Yao people have a traditional custom of collecting herbs from the "Yao mountains".

The medicinal plants observed in this study were classified into 152 species of herb (49.67%), 68 species of shrub (22.22%), 32 species of tree (10.46%), 29 species of the woody vine (9.48%), and 25 species of the herbaceous vine (8.17%) (Fig. 6). Herbs were most numerous and accounted for around half of the total species, because most herbs are easy to pick, cultivate and reproduce, and are convenient for use. These results are consistent with other research [44, 46,47,48,49]. In addition, the medicinal plants used by local healers fell into various life forms, which demonstrated that local healers had experimented with the use of an extensive range of plants over hundreds of years and had finally amassed the unique knowledge and experience of Yao medicine as we find it today.

Fig. 6
figure 6

Life forms of medicinal plants in the study area

The efficacy of medicinal plants is closely related to the medicinal part used. Different medicinal parts of the same plant may have different efficacy, and the same medicinal part may have different efficacy in different prescriptions. There were 330 medicinal parts belonging to 306 medicinal plants in Gongcheng, which were treated as 330 medicinal species. Among them, whole plants were the greatest in number (125 species), accounting for 37.88% of the total species, followed by roots (20.30%), rhizomes (7.27%), stems (7.27%), root tubers (4.55%), leaves (4.24%), stem and leaves (4.24%), barks (including root-barks) (3.94%), fruits (including legume and rinds) (3.64%), seeds (2.12%), flowers (including inflorescence) (1.82%), and others (including bulbs, bulbils, corms, tuber, stem pith, and thorns) (2.73%) (Table 6). Among the 330 medicinal parts used by the local healers in Gongcheng, there were two main categories of whole plants and roots, in a total of 192 species, that accounted for 62.75% of the total species. Similar results have been found in some minority communities of Guangxi [7, 8, 27, 36, 50]. The local healers generally believe that roots are where the plant's medicinal powers converge, and their efficacy is optimal. Among whole plants, most are herbs, because herbs are easy to pick, and their habitats are diverse.

Table 6 Medicinal plant parts used by local healers in Gongcheng

Relative frequency of citation

The RFC evaluates important plant species used by local healers to treat various diseases. From the 248 prescriptions investigated, the number of prescriptions mentioning plant species (FC) used ranged from one to 14. Calculations showed that 33 medicinal plant species had an FC > 5 (Table 7). The RFC value calculated for these 33 medicinal plant species ranged from 0.024 to 0.056. The higher RFC values included Kadsura longipedunculata, Schefflera heptaphylla, and Plantago asiatica.

Table 7 Relative frequency of citation (RFC) of plant species mentioned in prescriptions

The higher the RFC value, the more familiar was the local healers with the species; furthermore, and of great importance, the species were abundant and easy to obtain locally. Ten of these 33 medicinal plant species were traditional Laoban medicines, indicating that the local healers were good at using traditional Laoban medicines to treat diseases, especially Kadsura longipedunculata (the Laoban medicine name is xiao zuan) in the treatment of rheumatism. It also showed that local healers had a long history of using Laoban medicines, including Achyranthes aspera (the Laoban medicine name is niu xi feng) for the treatment of hyperostosis and rheumatic bone pain, Uncaria rhynchophylla (the Laoban medicine name is ying zhua feng) treatment for hyperostosis, lumbocrural pain, rheumatic bone pain, and others [26, 27]. These were all traditional and common usages in the local area.

Protect Yao traditional medicinal knowledge and medicinal plants

As for the protection of Gongcheng Yao traditional medicinal knowledge, the local government should provide a better environment for Yao healers, consider the legality of medical practice for Yao healers and give appropriate advertisements for those Yao healers. The local government also may pay more attention to the inheritance of Yao traditional medicinal knowledge and set up training course for young people. We firmly believe that the training of young personnel will strongly support the sustainable development of Yao medicine [35] and also is a very important approach for the conservation of Yao traditional medicinal knowledge.

Based on the demographic investigation, the Yao healers in Gongcheng aged over 60 more than half, some Yao healers are dying out, but their traditional medicinal knowledge was not be documented, so the further survey and record of Yao traditional medicinal knowledge is imperative [51], especially Sanjiang and Guanying townships in Gongcheng. Books and scientific reports about medicinal plants and Yao traditional medicinal knowledge should be published [8, 52].

In order to enhance the public understanding and confidence, as well as the safety of Yao traditional medicines, the advanced theories and methods of pharmacology, phytochemistry, and molecular pharmacognosy should be applied to study the Yao traditional medicines and traditional medicinal knowledge [8, 52]. And also in order to conserve local medicinal plant resources, the local government should encourage Yao people to plant preferred or rare medicinal plants in their farmlands [8, 35, 51, 52], which also in line with the strategy of rural revitalization.

Conclusion

In this study, we analyzed the data collected from 352 local healers in nine townships of Gongcheng, the Guanyin and Sanjiang townships had the highest distribution of per capita healers, so these two townships were key areas for the protection inheritance of traditional medicinal knowledge. Our investigation recorded 306 medicinal plant species (belonging to 116 families and 255 genera). Most local healers are good at treating traumatic injury and orthopedics, digestive system, skin disease and rheumatic disease. Herbal plants were most commonly used among the medicinal plant species, with whole plants and roots being favored. The most commonly used medicinal method was decoction, and the use of plasters, creams, and some form of moxibustion and cupping skills also showed local practice.

The demographics of local healers in Gongcheng demonstrate a decreasing number of local healers, aging of healers, lack of successors, and the loss of Yao traditional medicinal knowledge. These are affected by modern medicine, urbanization and economic development, and the conservative manner and oral mode of transmitting medicinal knowledge to the next generation. The Yao people excel at using rich medicinal plants to treat various diseases in Gongcheng, which reflects their profound wisdom. The local healers' rich knowledge of traditional medicine and unique remedies make the treatments convenient and efficient, and they have strong regional characteristics. Based on the profound local Yao medicinal knowledge, Gongcheng is currently building the Panwang Medicinal Valley, Yao-Han Health Center and Yao Medical Hospital, for which the current study also provides preliminary data and guidelines. The inheritance of Yao traditional medicinal knowledge is inseparable from the rich medicinal plant resources in the "Yao mountains". Therefore, while attempting to rescue the local traditional medicinal knowledge, great attention should also be paid to biodiversity conservation. Only by addressing both these factors can traditional medicinal knowledge be effectively inherited and developed.

Availability of data and materials

All data generated or analyzed during this study are included in this published article.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to all the local healers and local people of the study area for sharing their knowledge, cooperation, and hospitality. The authors would like to thank Changjiang Zheng, Guobin Lan, and Xianlin Rong for participating in this survey. We also thank Binsheng Luo and Renchuan Hu for their valuable suggestions on the improvement of the first draft.

Funding

This study was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31560088) and Basic research fund of Guangxi Academy of Sciences (No. CQZ-D-1906).

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Contributions

CRL and WBX designed the study and revised and finalized the manuscript. ZCL conducted data collection, analyzed the data, and drafted the manuscript. GO and JSL performed data collection. HLC contributed to the preparation of the manuscript. All authors participated in the field surveys. All authors have read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Chunrui Lin or Weibin Xu.

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Lu, Z., Chen, H., Lin, C. et al. Ethnobotany of medicinal plants used by the Yao people in Gongcheng County, Guangxi, China. J Ethnobiology Ethnomedicine 18, 49 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13002-022-00544-6

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Keywords

  • Ethnomedicine
  • Medicinal plants
  • Traditional knowledge
  • Yao ethnic group