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­In the Manchu region, along the border of China and North Korea, a botanical luminary grows—schisandra berry. Known as “wǔ wèi zi” in Chinese and “omija” in Korean, both names translate to “five-flavor berry.” Schisandra is renowned for its balanced flavor profile, simultaneously being sweet, tart, salty, spicy, and bitter.

A vine berry with a long and well-documented history in Eastern food and medicine, schisandra has been a component of Rishi teas since the early 2000s. In the East, from Japan and Korea to China and Russia, schisandra’s therapeutic effects have been studied, notably as an adaptogen. For the uninitiated, an adaptogen is an herb which aids in the body’s resistance to stressors. 

Though lovely as a cohesive component in blended teas, we’ve recently featured schisandra berry as a primary ingredient. Our Omija Berry Blush combines schisandra with lavender, strawberry, and Chilean rosehips for a fragrant and caffeine-free tea. In our Herb Lab, we are always experimenting with schisandra berry infused teas and botanical drinks.

In herbal medicine practices common amongst East Asian cultures, herbs are known for their adaptogenic qualities. Meaning, certain herbs have the ability to help the body prevent stress and achieve balance.  To elaborate on the concept of adaptogens, it is important to note specific compounds in the herbs which have this desired effect. 

In the schisandra berry, two main compounds express this adaptogenic quality: shisandrin and gomesin. Scientists have studied shisandrin for its ability to protect the nervous system against stress, while gomesin boasts anti-inflammatory power. Russian researchers have studied these compounds for positive effects on the liver—specifically, the supporting role they play in liver detoxification. Those in the cosmetic industry have also studied schisandra berry for adaptogenic upsides in producing radiant, glowing skin.

However, an important concept to understand about adaptogens is they are not a onceaweek cure-all. Bombarding the system with schisandra in a single drink will not miraculously heal months or years of accumulated stress. In East Asian culture’s outlook of foodasmedicine, adaptogens are included in an everyday diet to achieve balance. Instead of viewing schisandra or other adaptogens as instant cures, consider consuming these plants as part of a daily practice based on your own physiology. 

If consumed as part of a daily routine, schisandra could potentially help alleviate mental stress and physical fatigue. For those feeling depleted, schisandra could help re-energize the body. For those who find themselves frequently overthinking, this botanical could help alleviate anxiety. Ultimately, a food-as-medicine routine is about finding balance and doing so through adaptogens, healthy foods, exercise, and mindfulness practices.

Historically, schisandra berries are sundried and consumed as part of traditional food and medicinal practices. Recorded use dates back to the Tang dynasty (618~907 A.D.) in the The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica and recommends schisandra as part of treatment.  You can use schisandra berries in a number of ways. It’s found in beauty tonic herb blends, added into ginseng chicken soup, and infused into wines. In fact, using alcohol is a very traditional method of extracting schisandra’s flavor and nutrient compounds for medicinal dosing.  You can find these tinctures readily in Traditional Chinese Medicine shops.

For centuries in China, Korea, and other regions of East Asia, the primary health mindset considers foodasmedicine. The idea is, one must consume nutrient-rich foods containing balanced phytocompounds of a diverse nature to cultivate being in tune with one’s body and energy, or Qi. It’s an awareness of when the body has shortage or surplus of different elements and finding balance through food to keep disease at bay. In this region, dosed medicine is brewed more like an herbal tea than a pill. Whole herbs are the medicine, rather than the West’s preoccupation with packing powders and isolates into pill form.

Koreans often speak of schisandra’s many beauty aspects and use it in topical creams, which speaks to schisandra’s appearance in many different modern applications.  In recent decades, the pharmaceutical industry has invested in creating isolates and compounds from schisandra berries.

Unlike many teas and botanicals, schisandra berry grows almost like a wine grape. As with grapes in vineyards, schisandra propagates on vines across trellises in the Manchu region. These vines are situated on mountainous slopes, surrounded by forests that create an oxygen-rich atmosphere. Long ago, schisandra berries were a wild fruit of the Manchu’s mountain forests.  Now for centuries, Chinese and North Korean farmers have cultivated schisandra berries through genetic strains and clonal propagation.

Schisandra berries are harvested in the autumn and the ideal time for ripeness is right before the frost. With optimum ripeness depending on a few degrees of temperature, it could be tempting for some of the region’s farmers to harvest when the berries are slightly underripe. While green, unripe berries will work for pharmaceutical and supplement products, the flavor won’t do for Rishi’s schisandra imports. We work closely with our Chinese partner to ensure our botanicals are ripened, red berries. Seen in some photos of our partnering farmers, as the pickers harvest berries, they are looking for ripeness. They will only select the berries that are impeccable. 

Schisandra berry harvester, Mrs. Wong, picks a berry, using one gloved hand to pull the branches back, and the other to pluck the berries without scissors. Mrs. Wong and other pickers don’t pick everything—they are looking for ripeness. She and other pickers tend to be natives of the region.  They are paid a wage to pick the berries and a separate wage based on the weight of the harvest.  Most pickers are elders, as the youth are moving to cities because of the allure of urbanization.  As these economies continue to develop, tea farms are finding labor costs are going up, while adequate supply of labor is dwindling.

Once picked, the berries are collected and sorted into drying crates/baskets. Laying the berries out in thin layers ensures an even circulation of air for drying. Our partners have added a secondary process of oven-drying to ensure a consistent moisture rate.

As seen in images of berries undergoing dehydration, the most beautiful schisandra berries feature a carnelian hue. This attractive appearance isn’t just cosmetic—the red berries are the most flavorful ones, and these are the berries we use in our botanical drinks. The unripe ones (also seen in the images) are separated and destined for pharmaceutical supplements, as the nutrient compounds are virtually identical to the ripe berries.

Much like wine grapes, the drying process shrivels schisandra berries like raisins, but these dried fruits taste nothing alike. The dried berries Rishi covets have that iconic schisandra five-flavor balance—sweet, slightly salty, tart, spicy (or pungent), and bitter.

Upon first tasting schisandra, the berry’s skin is slightly salty. At the same time, the flesh is both sweet and tart. The crunchy pit is bitter but also spicy and aromatic, and it’s a large part of schisandra’s charm, creating an almost peppery aroma, or a sort of fruity heat.  But, overall, these flavor components are incredibly wellbalanced.

In a blend of herbs, schisandra berry has the ability to fuse flavors together, creating a dynamic flavor profile. It hits the palette in a number of different zones, making it an ideal complement to hibiscus and blueberry rooibos teas.

Rishi Tea has been importing these berries since the early 2000s, using it for various functional adaptogenic blends, but also to add flavor dynamism to more common ingredients like blueberries. For 15 years, we’ve produced an herbal blend called Blueberry Rooibos, and it has always featured schisandra berry.

Blueberry Rooibos is best described as a juicy blend. Leave out the schisandra berry, and the botanical blend would taste juicy, sweet, and tart from the hibiscus and other dried fruits like blueberry and elderberry. However, it wouldn’t have the “aromatic pop,” schisandra gives to the palette. The high, floral notes of geranium would be missing, as would the harmonizing effect of the five flavors on the Blueberry Rooibos tea.

Our Blueberry Rooibos, an annual top seller, is very popular in South Korea. This Rishi Tea blend is in a lot of South Korean coffee shops. We like to think its approval has to do with the blend of the American blueberry flavor and East’s familiar ingredient of schisandra.

We also have a blend called Omija Berry Blush. This boutique botanical, which references schisandra’s Korean name, is a nod to the berry’s historical usage as a beauty tonic herb. While schisandra is the blend’s focal point, it is balanced with lavender, strawberry, rose hips, and other beautiful herbs. It smells amazing and it has no caffeine– ideal for entering calm, meditative states. 

On the horizon, Rishi will be launching a brand-new line of ready-to-drink products we are calling Sparkling Botanicals.  Sparkling Botanicals elevates sparkling water with rare and exotic ingredients sourced directly from artisan growers across the Earth, formulated for flavor and function with a light and refreshing palate.  One of the flavors in this line up is the miraculous schisandra berry.  We’ve dedicated a whole product to the magical five flavor berry.  We hope you enjoy the experience of adding this adaptogen to your daily routine with a bit of a sparkle.