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An ethnobotanical study on medicinal plants of Shexian Dryland Stone Terraced System in northern China



Shexian Dryland Stone Terraced System (SDSTS) in the Taihang Mountains was formally recognized as Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) by Food and Agriculture Organization on May 20, 2022. People there have been relying on the terraced fields for centuries, using various plants, including medicinal plants. However, little information was reported about the flora in SDSTS, nor medicinal plants. Thus, the present study aims to identify and document medicinal plants traditionally used by the local people living around the SDSTS and associated ethnobotanical knowledge.


We conducted investigations in Shexian County, Hebei Province, North China, where SDSTS is distributed. Then, Wangjinzhuang, a community located in the core zone of SDSTS, was chosen as the case site. We selected the informants through purposive and snowball sampling. The data were collected through semi-structured interviews, participant observation, and key informant interviews. The medicinal plants traditionally used by the local people were documented and analyzed. We examined and confirmed the botanical identification based on voucher specimens and by cross-checking the descriptions with the series of books, scientific papers on medicinal plants, and the plant databases.


The local people have rich traditional knowledge to collect and use medicinal plants in SDSTS. Records of 123 medicinal plant species belonging to 51 families were obtained from SDSTS. Asteraceae was represented by 16 species, followed by Fabaceae, Lamiaceae and Ranunculaceae. (They all have 8 species.) The majority of the reported plant species were commonly processed into decoctions. And 180 diseases affecting humans were reported to be treated with traditional medicinal plants from SDSTS.


It is the first ethnobotanical study on medicinal plants in China-Nationally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems, and in globally important agricultural heritage systems as well. Medicinal plants are crucial for people living in Shexian County. It is necessary to recognize and respect traditional knowledge peculiar to the mountainous region of northern China, especially for those involved in the human–nature interaction and the role of knowledge in agrobiodiversity conservation and rural development that local residents have persisted for centuries.


Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) are defined as “remarkable land use systems and landscapes which are rich in globally significant biological diversity evolving from the co-adaptation of a community with its environment and its needs and aspirations for sustainable development.” according to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) [1]. GIAHS have resulted not only in outstanding aesthetic beauty, maintenance of globally significant agricultural biodiversity, resilient ecosystems and valuable cultural inheritance, but sustainably provided multiple goods and services, food and livelihood security for millions of people. Thus, the focus of the GIAHS is the dynamic conservation and adaptive management of traditional agricultural systems, to protect unique and vulnerable landscapes, and to preserve traditional knowledge and cultural heritage of local farming communities [2]. By the end of May 2022, there were 65 heritages having been identified as GIAHS by FAO from 22 countries around the world. As the first country that identifies and conserves agricultural heritage systems at the national level, China ranks the top one with 18 heritages until now, starting with the Qingtian Rice-Fish Culture System in Zhejiang Province which was selected as the first GIAHS pilot site in China by FAO in 2005. With a long history of agricultural development, Chinese farmers have been performing a variety of agricultural practices suitable for different natural conditions and created splendid agricultural heritages, including agricultural landscapes, knowledge, techniques and so on [3]. The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) initiated the designation of China-Nationally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (China-NIAHS) in 2012, devoting to reinforcing the awareness on the values of China-NIAHS and promoting the ecological protection of heritage sites, cultural inheritance and economic development [4]. Shexian Dryland Stone Terraced System (SDSTS) had been identified as China-NIAHS in 2014. In May 2022, SDSTS was formally recognized as GIAHS by FAO, for its unique ways of using traditional practices and knowledge while maintaining local biodiversity and ecosystems.

Both GIAHS and China-NIAHS are traditional farming systems that have emerged over centuries of coevolution between indigenous farmers and their environment using inventive self-reliance, experiential knowledge, and locally available resources, which represents accumulated experiences of peasants interacting with the environment without access to external inputs, capital, or scientific knowledge [5,6,7,8]. These systems are well adapted to their particular environment with significant elements of sustainability and tend to conserve natural resource base, allowing traditional farmers to maximize harvest security under low levels of technology and with limited environmental impact based on the cultivation of various crops and varieties in time and space [9]. Therefore, these systems are of considerable importance because of the significance, the wealth and breadth of accumulated knowledge and experiences in the management and use of resources they represent. It is imperative that they be considered globally significant resources and should be protected and preserved as well as allowed to evolve under the threats of modern agriculture [10].

Rich biodiversity is one of the salient features of GIAHS or China-NIAHS. Such systems support a high degree of plant diversity in the form of polycultures and/or agroforestry patterns [5, 9]. However, diversity is maintained not only within a cultivated area, it also involves natural vegetation adjacent to their fields except for crops. Many of them are wild or weedy relatives of crop plants, from which local farmers obtain their living requirements by means of multiple usage patterns such as construction material, firewood, tools, medicines, livestock feed and human food. For example, the Hani people in the Honghe Prefecture of Southeastern Yunnan, China, have collected and used a total of 224 wild edible plants from the Hani Rice Terraced System [11]. The P’urhepecha Indians who lived around Lake Patzcuaro in Mexico have used at least 224 species of native and naturalized vascular plants for dietary, medicinal, household, and fuel needs [12]. But the most existing studies were prone to focus on peculiar cultivated species that dominated the agricultural system [13,14,15,16]. The wild plant resources growing in the surroundings are largely overlooked, which is happening to Shexian Dryland Stone Terraced System (SDSTS) as well [17].

Shexian Dryland Stone Terraced System (SDSTS) is a typical mountainous farming ecosystem that lies in the Taihang Mountains. Diverse terrains allow SDSTS to harbor abundant biodiversity including wildlife and wild herbal medicines. The vegetation regionalization of Shexian County belongs to the subregion of North China mountainous flora, located in the transition band between Taihang Mountains–Lüliang Mountains flora district and South Taihang Mountains–Zhongtiao Mountains flora district [18]. Both temperate coniferous forests and warm-temperate deciduous broad-leaved forests are existing there, with herbs and shrubs dominating the wild plants [19]. During the human and nature's coordinated development for over 700 years, a unique rain-fed agricultural system with characteristic eco-agriculture products has emerged and developed through the process of agroforestry systems. The local people intercroppingly grow millet, pulses, walnut, persimmon, Sichuan pepper (Zanthoxylum bungeanum), Bupleurum (one of the most important herbal medicinal plants in China) and other crops in the systems. There is abundant ecological intelligence of “planting crops in field, storing grain into granary, saving food from mouth.” The five-in-one compound socio-ecological system of “terraces-villagers-crops-donkeys-stone” plays a crucial ecological role in the conservation of genetic resources, biodiversity, soil, water and so on [20]. Various plants in SDSTS involving food crops, vegetable crops, and medicinal plants, serve as the primary food sources in people’s daily life and the crucial material reserve confronted with disasters and famines. People in local have gotten through a few famines due to crop failure falling back on the edible and medicinal plants in history.

As a matter of fact, Shexian Dryland Stone Terraced System (SDSTS) had received considerable attention since it was identified as China-National Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (China-NIAHS) in 2014, but seldom on medicinal plants. Studies were mainly about its farming technique [17, 20,21,22], soil erosion and soil element characteristics [23, 24], ecological value of landscape [19, 25, 26] and economic efficiency. Shexian dryland terraces’ origins, classifications and features were studied [22], through the systematic research to collect abundant agricultural species and traditional landraces [27], as well as the conservation and utilization experiences and associated technologies in Wangjinzhuang Community. Han focused on the diet of villagers living in the core area of SDSTS and described the whole process from planting to eating through the food system by cultivating grain on the terrace, storing grain in the house, and saving food from the mouth. The article illustrated how local residents eat the wild plants and they also collected the wild medicinal plants during famines [21]. Zhang combed the characteristics of the agricultural landscape system in Shexian County [19], indicating that the landscape system of mountain agriculture in Shexian County was comprised of nature matrix, stone terraces, settlement and culture. A rich variety of wild vegetation acted as the fundamental background, increasing the stratification of landscape and preventing flood as well.

Shexian County has been one of the most traditional Chinese medicine-cultivated counties in Hebei Province and one of the top three manufacturing locations of Bupleurum in China. These medicinal plants had also played a vital role in the victories of 129 Division led by Bocheng Liu and Xiaoping Deng in World War II, the Anti-Japanese war from 1937 to 1945. Among them, Bupleurum and Forsythia (another famous herbal medicine plant in China) represented remarkable contributions to healing and rescuing the wounded in the war. They exhibited a long history and a valuable tradition in making clever use of medicinal plants that appeared. As a result, medicinal plants and associated traditional knowledge composed an important proportion of the local cultural system.

Plants resources are indispensable to SDSTS, but existing researches have been keeping eye on the cultivated species, losing sight of the wild which are crucial and irreplaceable supplies when the surroundings become more tough, let alone medicinal plants. In particular, under the impulsion of modernization, more and more people prefer to head for towns. Thus, there is a devastating threat to inheriting the traditional knowledge of using medicinal plants [28]. As a representative of the mountain farming system in North China, it is significant to study and explore medicinal plants of SDSTS, and document their traditional knowledge, which may help to protect them from disappearing in a rapid-developing era.


Study area

Wangjinzhuang Community, belonging to Jingdian Township, Shexian County, Hebei Province, China, is composed of 5 villages. These villages are connected with each other. It covers an area of 12 square kilometers and accommodates 4406 families [25, 26]. Wangjinzhuang has been the typical representative for SDSTS due to its wide distribution of dryland stone terraced fields and complete historical traditions. It is also the core conservation area of the heritage site located in the east of Shexian County. The terraces constructed in Wangjinzhuang Community have been called “the Second Great Wall of China” because it has a large scale of dryland stone terraces up to 8 square kilometers [20, 22]. As an agricultural heritage site, Wangjinzhuang Community has significant heritage values in addition to its splendid terraced landscape, including donkey culture, stone culture, farming culture, and revolutionary culture [29]. During the long time when local people live on the terraces in a fragile ecosystem, people still preserve and inherit the rich biodiversity-associated knowledge there, accumulating the precious, unique, varied and unsophisticated cultural resources including the traditional knowledge about medicinal plants (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Study area

Wangjinzhuang Community lies between latitudes 36° 17′ 0″ N to 36° 55′ 0″ N, and longitudes 113° 26′ 0″ E to 114° 00′ 0″ E, which is mountainous and stony at an average elevation of 856.5 m above sea level. From the view of terrain, the community is high in the northwest and low in the southeast under a complex topographical condition, where floods and droughts are frequent due to the severe lack of soil and water on this barren land [30]. Therefore, stones can be found here and there. Wangjinzhuang Community has a northern temperate continental monsoon climate with clearly distinct dry–wet seasons, in the semiarid and semi-humid regions. The annual average temperature of the community was 13.5 °C. The coldest month is January and the hottest is July whose highest average temperature can reach 26.9 °C [26]. The annual average precipitation there is 540 mm, peculiar to SDSTS among any other terraced system as GIAHS. It provides suitable conditions for dryland crops such as Setaria italica (L.) Beauv. and Glycine max (L.) Merr., and indicates a significant interannual variation because of the topography condition, causing the rainstorm and then floods (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2
figure 2

Some medicinal plants in the study area (Schnabelia terniflora (Maxim.) P. D. Cantino, Periploca sepium Bunge, Polygala sibirica L., Menispermum dauricum DC., Phedimus aizoon (L.)’t Hart, Rehmannia glutinosa (Gaert.) Libosch. ex Fisch. et Mey, Salvia miltiorrhiza Bunge and Forsythia suspensa (Thunb.) Vahl are from A to H, respectively.)

Informants interviewed

Five key informants were initially recruited via purposive sampling by representatives working in the local administrative authorities from the Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Affairs in Shexian County, and Conservation and Utilization Association of Shexian Dryland Stone Terraced System (CUA-SDSTS). The criterion for the sampling was being known in the community to have knowledge of medicinal plants and their use to treat ailments. Further informants were recruited thereafter by snowball sampling. The 78 informants consisted of 76 practitioners who were members in CUA-SDSTS and 2 herbalists who had their own clinics there. Informants were aged between 30 and 75, with an average age of mid-forties.

Ethnobotanical data collection and plants identification

First, the permission for this study was supported by the Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Affairs of Shexian County and a prior informed oral consent was obtained from the informants through the administrative officials in the local government. We arranged an inventory of wild plants locally based on what the local did in the previous work before interviewing informants. Then, a verification was made by semi-structured interviews [31, 32] and field surveys. The semi-structured interviews were performed by asking informants to share information related to medicinal plants, including used plant parts, drug preparations and diseases treated [33, 34]. The frequency of use of medicinal plants was classified into “frequent,” “moderate” and “scarce” marked with “***,” “**” and “*,” respectively, and the key informants for purposes of classifying these species were selected randomly from all informants.

The field surveys were conducted between June 2020 and May 2021. We made on-the-spot investigations in Jingdian Township, Gengle Township and Guanfang Township of Shexian County, then focused on the western slope corner of Houjiao Gully for the fourth street village and Gaoyan Glover of Dishui Gully for the fifth street village after that. The herbalists firstly mentioned the medicinal plants they had used and later led us to the wild where we can find them.

Voucher specimens were collected during the field trips. They were deposited in the Herbarium of Minzu University of China. For plants identification, taxonomic nomenclature was mainly based on Plants of the World Online ( and the Plant Plus of China ( databases. We also took photographs of all the medicinal plants as a special disposition for the infeasibility of the voucher collecting. All data were analyzed in Microsoft Excel.


Diversity of medicinal plant species in Shexian Dryland Stone Terraced System

A total of 123 medicinal plant species belonging to 51 families were reported to be used for treating human ailments in SDSTS (Table 1). Among them, 38 plant families were represented by one or two species while 13 families were represented by three species or more. Asteraceae was the most represented family with 16 species, followed by Fabaceae, Lamiaceae and Ranunculaceae with 8 species, respectively. Of the total, Bupleurum chinense DC., Bupleurum scorzonerifolium Willd., Periploca sepium Bunge, Anemarrhena asphodeloides Bunge, Cirsium arvense var. integrifolium C. Wimm. et Grabowski, Taraxacum mongolicum Hand. -Mazz., Adenophora stricta Miq., Vigna radiata (L.) Wilczek, Scutellaria baicalensis Georgi, Forsythia suspensa (Thunb.) Vahl, Polygala tenuifolia Willd., Rumex crispus L., Agrimonia pilosa Ledeb. and Zanthoxylum bungeanum Maxim. are the most frequently used species in the study area.

Table 1 Inventory of medicinal plants traditionally used by the local people in Wangjinzhuang Community

The life habits of medicinal plants in SDSTS are mostly herbaceous (70%), represented by 86 species. Other forms like trees, lianas and shrubs were represented with 15 species (12%), 10 species (8%) and 12 species (10%), respectively.

It is reported that the whole plant (referring to the aerial part of the plant in the present research) and other parts such as bark, root, leaf, fruit, seed, stem, bulb, flower, kernel, rhizome, thorn and tuber are collected as medicine. Even though about 13 different plants parts were reported to be used for remedy preparation in different ways, a larger proportion (30.8%) of the preparations were obtained from the whole plant followed by root (18.3%) and fruit (11.2%). The leaf was used for 8.3% preparations and stem for 6.5%, rhizome and seed part both were 5.9%, whereas bark, flower, tuber, bulb, thorn and kernel were 5.3%, 3%, 1.8%, 1.2%, 1.2% and 0.6%, respectively.

Among them, 97 species were reported to be used with only one part. Eleven species were used with two parts, and there were 7 species with three parts used, 5 and 2 with four and five parts, respectively. Celastrus orbiculatus Thunb. and Morus alba L. have the most parts used for medicinal purposes.

Modes of preparation and administration

As herbalists reported in the study area, ways of preparing remedies include three main types: decoction, pounding and cooking. The major way of herbal medicine preparation was decoction through boiling with clean water including 123 species, from those, 39 species have another method that is crushing the plant parts. Juglans regia L. tends to be eaten directly or cooked with meat.

The majority of the reported plant species were commonly processed into decoctions, which have been reported as one of the best approaches to extracting beneficial secondary metabolites [35, 36]. Some species for both medicinal and food purposes belong to this category. Representatives include rhizomes of Polygonatum, and roots of Platycodon grandiflorus and Arctium lappa.

Results of analysis of route of administration of medicinal preparations revealed that oral application was the most common route of administration (121 preparations), combined with external application (39 preparations), fumigating (3 preparations) and washing in soup (9 preparations), which is derived from decoction preparation. They vary based on different collocations with each other. All species but Incarvillea sinensis Lam. were reported to be orally administered. Some of them have more than one route. Artemisia argyi Levl. et Van were also hung on doors as antibiosis and repellents.

Major types of diseases occurred in the study area

There were 180 mentioned human diseases, and the top 29 kinds of them are listed in Table 2. All of the diseases were identified on the International Classification of Diseases 11th Revision (ICD-11) System according to the description and explanation from herbalists, and classified into 20 kinds as shown in Fig. 3. The most cited health problems belong to “Symptoms, signs or clinical findings, not elsewhere classified” (22 diseases) and “Diseases of the genitourinary system” (22 diseases), “Supplementary Chapter Traditional Medicine Conditions-Module I” (20 diseases) and “Certain infectious or parasitic diseases” (19 diseases) Chapter.

Table 2 List of top 29 most treated human ailments in the study area
Fig. 3
figure 3

Classifications of diseases based on ICD-11

Edible use of medicinal plants

All 123 medicinal plant species recorded for treating human ailments in the study area were also cited for the edible use. The medicinal and edible plant species, as well as edible methods for them, are summarized in Table 3.

Table 3 List of plants for both medicinal and edible purposes

The most important medicinal plants in SDSTS

Bupleurum scorzonerifolium Willd., Bupleurum chinense DC., Forsythia suspensa (Thunb.) Vahl, Zanthoxylum bungeanum Maxim. and Periploca sepium Bunge were the highly utilized and the most significant medicinal species in SDSTS. As native species, they indicate that the local flora of SDSTS delivers significant medicinal uses. There even have Products of Geographical Indication of them—“Shexian Chaihu”, “Shexian Lianqiao” and “Shexian Huajiao,” in which Chaihu refers to the dried roots of Bupleurum, Lianqiao to the dried fruits of Forsythia and Huajiao to Zanthoxylum fruits, respectively. Juglans and Taraxacum have a great symbiosis highly acclimatized to the local mountainous environment [37]. For all native species above, the local has a large area under cultivation and a long history of planting, as well as rich experience in cultivation and production other than in the wild. For example, there was a cultivated area of 66.7 square kilometers for Bupleurum and 80 square kilometers for Forsythia in Shexian County by 2020, attaining a total production value of up to 247 million RMB (36.9 million USD). Particularly, Bupleurum and Forsythia are prominent varieties of the characteristic industry for traditional Chinese medicine, promoting the implementation of strategy for rural revitalization in Shexian County. They not only contributed to the development of the industry of traditional Chinese medicinal materials in Shexian County, but also promoted the agricultural production and farmers' income. The locals depend on them for living.

Bupleurum exists on the slopes and in the shrubs at an elevation of 400 to 1500 m above sea level in the wild. They were mainly cultivated in Piancheng and Guanfang townships. With a yield of 1600 kg per square kilometer, the dried roots of Bupleurum were sold to domestic traditional Chinese medicine markets and even overseas. Previous studies have also shown that the total flavonoids in different parts of Bupleurum in Shexian County had strong antioxidant activities and great potential as a natural antioxidant in food [38]. In SDSTS, some species have been cultivated traditionally (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4
figure 4

Bupleurum seedlings were cultivated in SDSTS in spring, forming an agroforestry system with Zanthoxylum bungeanum and Diospyros kaki


A verification for local traditional Chinese medicine capacity

Shexian County has a sound foundation of traditional Chinese medicine whether in the history or in modern life [39], which are the basic materials for National Traditional Chinese Medicine with a large cultivated area, such as Bupleurum chinense DC., Forsythia suspensa (Thunb.) Vahl, Zanthoxylum bungeanum Maxim., Belamcanda chinensis (L.) Redouté, Scutellaria baicalensis Georgi, Nepeta cataria L., Salvia miltiorrhiza Bunge and Anemarrhena asphodeloides Bunge. In Shexian Dryland Stone Terraced System, a total of 123 medicinal plant species were reported to treat human ailments traditionally, indicating the presence of a considerable diversity of medicinal plants and a huge exploiting potential of traditional Chinese medicine there. At the same time, this study can provide the local traditional Chinese medicine industry a valuable reference data. The existence and utilization of a large number of medicinal plants might demonstrate that the majority of people continue to employ indigenous medicinal practices to date. Patients could collect medicinal herbs to treat themselves after the herbalists gave them diagnoses in a descriptive way when the ailments they got are common like the traumatic injury, fever, swelling and pain in throat, snakebites, cold and cough, and so on. The reality shows that local people have got a good command of the relevant knowledge and skills while using medicinal plants because they knew what kind of herbs can treat the ailment they got, where to collect and how to process them.

A legendary history of “Bupleurum injection” in Shexian County

The wild Bupleurum has a time-honored history and civilization as the speciality in Shexian County. During the Anti-Japanese war period (1937–1945), the local wild Bupleurum resources were used to research and develop into “Bupleurum injection” by the Chinese Eighth Route Army’s 129 Division, the troops commanded by two famous leaders of the People’s Republic of China, Liu Bocheng and Deng Xiaoping. Liu was conferred on marshal in 1955, and Deng became the top Chinese leader in 1978. Bupleurum injection had been used to cure influenza and fever, and treat malaria, making a great contribution to the victory of the Anti-Japanese War. The adequate medicinal plants around the Taihang Mountains were widely applied by the Chinese Eighth Route Army to the Anti-Japanese war as crucial substitutes when the Japanese army cut off their supplies and the drugs such as sulfonamides, aspirins and quinines were severely scarce. In order to meet the challenges of war, like the storage and transportation, the wild Bupleunum resources had been developed into injections led by Gang Han in 1941, the director of LiHua Pharmaceutical Factory. That was how the first intramuscular injection of the traditional Chinese medicine was brought forth. As the first traditional Chinese medicine injection, it was a remarkable invention for the manufacture of traditional Chinese medicines using a western way, making it possible for the traditional Chinese medicine to give first-aid treatment. The manufacture of “Bupleurum injection” survived the Japanese army’s medicine blockade, supporting the Anti-Japanese war to a great extent. The valuable history of the wild Bupleurum is not only an important component of local cultural heritage but a typical example to demonstrate what an irreplaceable position of traditional medicinal plants played in the history of the world.

The medicinal and edible plants

There are 28 species listed in Table 3 used for both medicine and food, which indicated that the roles indigenous people taking plant resources are sufficient and diverse. As one of three precious local specialties in Shexian County, Zanthoxylum bungeanum Maxim. possesses huge and various values including promoting appetite and digestion, strengthening spleen and stomach for medical function, being a natural flavor in daily life to make the dish taste better, and having insecticidal and antisepsis effect using in food and clothing. Aquilegia viridiflora Pall. is similar. Local people picked the wild for promoting blood circulation, treating mainly for gynopathy like abnormal menstruation. This species also served as palatable homemade dishes. The specific culinary procedures for it are as follows: firstly clean up the plants, then boil them with water, and finally put them into the millet congee, or cooked as the vegetable soup directly. As is often the case with Hemerocallis citrina Baroni and Taraxacum mongolicum Hand.-Mazz., they are common on the dining tables as salads with sauce, or as a kind of dumpling stuffing. In the long-term interaction of living and thriving, much traditional knowledge about wild medicinal plants and edible plants has been developed and accumulated by the local people owing to this northerly limestone mountainous area, poor transportation and abundant natural resources. As far as SDSTS is concerned, it has been undergoing drought and flood disasters and had the cruel wars. Therefore, the medicinal and edible uses of wild plants in local are likely to be the most primary use patterns. It is equally important and urgent to study edible plants in SDSTS and their traditional knowledge.

Agrobiodiversity in SDSTS

According to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), agrobiodiversity is defined as “the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms that are used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture, including crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries. It comprises the diversity of genetic resources (varieties, breeds) and species used for food, fodder, fiber, fuel and pharmaceuticals. It also includes the diversity of non-harvested species that support production (soil micro-organisms, predators, pollinators), and those in the wider environment that support agro-ecosystems (agricultural, pastoral, forest and aquatic) as well as the diversity of the agro-ecosystems.” Agrobiodiversity is a vital sub-set of biodiversity, guaranteeing the livelihoods and food security of local communities and providing multiple ecological functions [40]. Agrobiodiversity is regarded as the central to overall biodiversity, but overlooked to a great extent and under threat [41]. Issues on agrobiodiversity in agricultural heritage sites are particularly highlighted.

The Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) program of FAO aims to identify agricultural systems of global importance, preserve landscape, agrobiodiversity and traditional knowledge and apply the principles of dynamic conservation to promote sustainable development. Agrobiodiversity is one of the most important components of agricultural heritage systems. Many farmers who live in difficult environments, rely on diverse traditional varieties of crops. This helps them maintain their livelihood in the face of pathogen infestation, uncertain rainfall and fluctuation in the price of cash crops, sociopolitical disruption and the unpredictable availability of agro-chemicals. The need for different agricultural products at different times and agroecological conditions, however, is more clearly and commonly noted than the others of agrobiodiversity. As a result, there are now considerable studies about the amounts of crop genetic and species diversity maintained in agricultural heritage systems and the reasons for this [16, 17, 42, 43]. However, mostly wild species were neglected in those studies on agrobiodiversity. More accurately, for those that are frequently found next to the main staple or cash crops, and native plants emerged spontaneously in the system. They often appeared in daily life and their importance is often misjudged.

Fortunately, agrobiodiversity in SDSTS has been emphasized since it was assigned as a China-nationally Important Agricultural Heritage System site in 2014. The local people traditionally conserved their crop genetic resources in the stone terraced fields. Previous research conducted in Wangjingzhuang Community revealed that there is rich agrobiodiversity in SDSTS. Researchers identified 77 species in 57 genera and 26 families, including 171 landraces cultivated or managed in the Shexian Dryland Terrace System. These plant species covered 15 grain crops, 31 vegetables, 5 oil-bearing crops, 14 fruits, and 12 medicinal, textile, and tobacco plants. The landraces discovered in SDSTS are grains (62), vegetables (57), fruits (33), oil-bearing crops (7), and others (12 varieties of medicinal, textile, and tobacco plants) [17]. More importantly, the present study dealt with wild plants in SDSTS, focusing on their medicinal plants. To compare with other GIAHS sites, our research in SDSTS initiated an aspect of agrobiodiversity investigation, which refers to medicinal plants traditionally used by the local people. Our findings would probably provide a reference for other GIAHS sites.


Shexian Dryland Stone Terraced System (SDSTS) retains substantial medicinal plants and associated traditional knowledge, which has been reflected in our surveys. There were 123 medicinal plant species belonging to 51 families documented from SDSTS. Asteraceae is the largest family with 16 species followed by Fabaceae, Lamiaceae and Ranunculaceae (8 species). The majority of the medicinal plants were commonly processed into decoctions. And 180 diseases affecting humans were reported to be treated traditionally with medicinal plants in SDSTS. It is the first case study to identify medicinal plants that were traditionally used in agricultural heritage sites.

Designated as GIAHS by FAO, Shexian Dryland Stone Terraced System has been proven to be of global importance. This study helps to fill a gap in surveys of wild plant resources in SDSTS. The ethnobotanical survey provides a foundation and reference for the conservation and sustainable development of agrobiodiversity in GIAHS.

Availability of data and materials

All data, materials, and information are collected from the study sites.


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The authors are thankful to the local people in Shexian County, Hebei Province, China, who provided valuable information and knowledge about local medicinal plants, and the officials from Shexian County assisting our fieldwork.


This research was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31761143001 and 31870316) and the Minzu University of China (2022GJAQ04, 2022ZDPY10 and 2020MDJC03).

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Authors and Affiliations



CLL conceived and designed the study and funded this study. YB, QZ, XLH, HFW, WLL, JFZ, YM and CLL conducted the field surveys and collected the data. CLL, HFW and YB identified the plant species. YB performed the literature review, analyzed the data and wrote the manuscript. CLL edited the final version. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Chunlin Long.

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Bai, Y., Zhang, Q., He, X. et al. An ethnobotanical study on medicinal plants of Shexian Dryland Stone Terraced System in northern China. J Ethnobiology Ethnomedicine 18, 62 (2022).

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