29 May 2003
`Weed' proves a treasure
A northern village is enjoying new
prosperity thanks to a humble grass that's said to help cancer
victims and others
Story by CHOMPOO TRAKULLERTSATHIEN,
Pictures by SOMKID CHAIJITVANIT
Nimdamrongsakchai and the villagers of Baan Dong Thob are the
country's largest supplier of ya pak-king grass.
|After the harvest
villagers gather at Somchai's to prepare the finished product.
Looking out on his 10-rai plot of
grassland in Baan Dong Thop of Sa Kaew province, Somchai
Nimdamrongsakchai is the picture of satisfaction. ``It's my golden
land,'' he says of the expanse of ya pak-king grass stretching out
``When it turns a yellowy colour, it's harvest time.''
Ya pak-king is valued for slowing the spread of breast and colon
cancer and has grown more popular as the demand for herbal
medicines has soared in recent years. The special properties of
the plant, whose scientific name is ``Murdannia loriformis
(Hassk.) Rolla Rao et Kammathy,'' have been tested by scientists
from Mahidol University's Faculty of Pharmacy.
The herb was in short supply in this country before Somchai
pioneered large-scale production three years ago. He now exports
to several countries, including China and Japan, and his home
place has become known as ``ya pak-king village''.
Villagers who initially laughed at the man who was growing
``weeds'' have jumped on the bandwagon.
``At first, I really wondered who was going to buy his ``weeds'',
said Suwanee Chidjungread. ``But after I found out what it was and
why it was important, I thought differently. Somchai taught me
everything about it and now it's earning me good money for my
family,'' said Suwanee, who is in charge of quality control at the
Said Somchai: ``From the start, I wanted to help the local economy
and help people here stand on their own two feet.''
About 30 villagers now work at the farm, where labour starts at
dawn and doesn't end till dusk. The vast grassland has become a
natural outdoor classroom as well as production centre.
``I train them in everything, from preparing the soil and the
beds, to cultivation and collection. They take turns to look after
the plants and water them. And we all work harder when urgent
orders come in,'' said Somchai.
This is an unusual-looking ``grassland''. The humble plant is
cultivated in neat rows, like fruit trees in an orchard, and there
are lots of weeds, which provide cheap shade for the grass.
The road to success wasn't all smooth sailing. Somchai, a former
fruit farmer, knew nothing about the grass at the beginning. He
had to hunt for specimens to plant and propagate. He lucked out
when he found a thriving patch in a temple, took it home and
``I grew a small patch and after a long time and a lot of trial
and error, figured out how to do it.''
Finding a niche in the herbal market was also tough. Although the
plant had been introduced to Thailand as a herb five decades ago,
few people knew of its medical qualities.
``A lot of people thought it was just another grass, and few would
eat it. But that's all changed now. It's even selling in
The main customer at the moment is Apaiphubet Hospital in Prachin
Buri, which has a strong focus on traditional medicine. Individual
traders also come by regularly to pick up product for distribution
around the country. The farm produces around 300 kilogrammes of
grass a month.
Good soil is crucial, says Somchai. ``It must have a medium PH
level. The grass can't flourish in acid or alkaline soil. The PH
must be medium. We send samples off from time to time to get it
``And the product must be clean and chemical-free,'' he added.
``The reason all the villagers must work at the central plot is so
I can keep an eye on things. If they grew grass elsewhere they
might use pesticides or chemical growth-enhancing hormones which
would affect the product and pose a health hazard.''
At four months old, a grass plant is rich in medicinal properties
and ready to harvest. The farmers collect all parts of the plant,
including the roots, blooms, leaves, seeds and stems. Then they
are cleaned, dried, sliced, baked twice and screened for size
before being packaged. It takes about 20 kilogrammes of fresh
grass to create one kilo of the dried herb, which sells for about
``You need a lot of plants for a small amount of finished product.
That's why we have to keep expanding the grassland, to meet the
demand,'' said Somchai.
The farm grows other medicinal plants as well, including
citronella grass, turmeric, pepper vine, betel vine, Milletia
kityana (rang jued), oyster plant (wan karb hoi), black lily and
Zingiver casumuna (pai). Most of the additional plants are
cultivated in village orchards, where they are mixed in with
``Herbs need no extra care. They grow well beneath big trees.
Several kinds of medicinal herbs are on the verge of extinction
and I want to keep them alive. I just need to find the time to
hunt more of them out.''
Time is in short supply for the busy farmer who's in demand to
speak about the grass at educational institutes and in villages
around the country. The farm also gets regular visitors dropping
by to look for information.
``People can be inspired by our example to identify plants that
will help them have an income all year round. They can see our
techniques and adapt them. There's no point in everyone relying on
one crop. Or in relying on the government either,'' said Somchai.
With an eye on the future, he is currently experimenting with
making his own instant grass juice and ya pak-king capsules.
``We won't stop here. We're going to diversify and make different
forms of the product. Thais should have may alternatives when it
comes to their medical treatment, especially in traditional
medicine,'' said Somchai.
- Information is derived from research conducted by scientists
from Mahidol University's Faculty of Pharmacy.
A boost to the system
Ya pak-king, also known as ya thevada, originated in southern
China and is abundant in northern Thailand. It is often used as a
decorative element in gardens, stands at between 7-20 centimetres
tall and has blue blooms.
It has versatile curative powers _ it is said, for instance, to
help heal respiratory diseases and to help rid the body of
poisons. It became famous in 1984 when a cancer patient recovered
after drinking fresh grass juice. Many cancer patients now take
the herb to reduce side-effects from modern medicine.
According to research by scientists from Mahidol University's
Faculty of Pharmacy, the biological properties of the plant can
help stop the growth of cancerous cells in the breast and
intestines, to a moderate degree. It has also been shown that this
kind of grass helps boost the immune system. The grass is
considered a safe medicine by the World Herbal Organisation's
How to plant your own grass
Ya pak-king needs just a small patch of land. It thrives in loose
and sandy soil, and under shade, such as a large tree. It will
grow in a pot and needs moderate amounts of water, more in the hot
season. Shoots can be used for propagation. It can be planted all
To make fresh juice, take the stems of about six plants, weighing
100-120 grammes, slice them into small pieces and pound them in a
mortar. Add 60 millilitres of clean water and then sieve the
mixture through a white cloth. The fresh juice should be consumed
For best results, drink two tablespoons of fresh juice twice a day
in the morning and evening, before meals. (Children should take
half this measure).
Make sure to follow the recommended amounts. Those looking to
boost their immune system should take the medicine for not longer
than four to six weeks. It is a good idea to stop taking the
medicine every now and again. For example, take it for five or six
days and then take a break for four or five days before resuming.