Balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorum), also known as Chinese or Japanese bell-flower, is a worthy representative of an eclectic group of medicinal-cum-ornamental herbs.
Once native to eastern Asia, balloon flower is now cultivated throughout the world’s temperate regions. Most people are familiar with this hardy plant’s blossoms, which form inflated, balloon-shaped orbs just before they burst forth into five-petaled, heavily-veined, sky-blue flowers. (Strains with white or pink flowers are also fairly common, and cultivars with shorter stems have been developed to restrain balloon flower’s tendency to collapse and sprawl.)
However, balloon flower does more than just grace the sunny edges of our flowerbeds. It has been a part of the Chinese herbal pharmacopeia for at least two millennia, having been mentioned in the Shen Nong Canon of Herbs during the Han Dynasty (circa 200 BC). It is still a constituent of patented remedies in Japan and China, where it is marketed as Platycodi Stop Cough Tablets, and balloon flower’s medicinal and ornamental attributes have been commemorated on postage stamps in several countries.
In his book, The Way of Herbs, Dr. Michael Tierra cites balloon flower root’s value as "...a tonic expectorant useful for treating asthma, cough, sore throat, and lung and bronchial congestion. It is useful as a strong expectorant and helps to counteract pneumonia and clear infected mucus from the lungs.”
In addition to alleviating respiratory complaints, Chinese physicians use Radix Platycodi (balloon flower root) to treat stomatitis (oral inflammation), peptic ulcers, and chronic inflammatory diseases.
A World Health Organization monograph lists triterpene saponins – including platycodigenin and polygalacic acid – as the chief constituents of balloon flower root. The WHO document also helps to dispel the notion that balloon flower’s root is poisonous – a concern that is paradoxically (and inexplicably) voiced in many manuscripts that extol the virtues of Radix Platycodi. The root contains hemolytic sapogenins that are apparently either inactivated in the intestinal tract or poorly absorbed into the bloodstream. In any event, Radix Platycodi formulations are only toxic if they’re injected – an unlikely possibility for any right-thinking individual (although there seems to be any number of foolhardy folks who insist on proving that Darwin was correct in his assumptions).
Balloon flower root can be taken either as a tea or a tincture. If preparing a tea, place 1-2 grams of dried, powdered root in one cup of boiling water and steep for 10 to 15 minutes. Use 10 to 30 drops of the tincture in a cup of water or juice up to four times daily.
You may have to locate a Chinese physician to track down Platycodi Stop Cough Tablets (online sources may also be available).
Even if you never use balloon flower for its salutary properties, plant one near your garden gate or at the foot of your porch (it thrives in USDA zones 4-9); its puffy flowers are delightful!
(All images Copyright Stephen A. Christensen, MD)