Chinese Yams / Dioscorea

Chinese Yams (Shan Yao)

Chinese Yams / Dioscorea (Shan Yao)

Botanical Name: Dioscoreae Oppositae (D. polystachya and D. oppositifolia)

Called “fairy food” in China for its congenital and tonic abilities, it is often cut into thick slices and cooked in stews. Used safely by all ages, it is especially noted for improving male and female fertility, aiding digestion and stopping coughs.

Below is an overview of Chinese Yams / Dioscorea (Shan Yao), combining and interpreting the best of Western Science, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Shamanism, Folklore and more. Gain a balanced and thorough understanding of the healing properties of Chinese Yams / Dioscorea (Shan Yao).

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Western Name: Chinese Yams

Also Known As: Dioscorea

Organs/Systems: Digestion, Lungs, Reproductive

Key Western Actions & Medicinal Uses: Digestive, Tonic, Demulcent.


Pin Yin: Shan Yao

Also Known As: “Shan Yao” translates as “Mountain Herb”

Meridians: Kidney, Lung, Spleen

Key TCM Actions & Medicinal Uses: Tonifies and Supports Spleen and Stomach: Diarrhea, fatigue, spontaneous sweating, lack of appetite. Tonifies and Supports Lung Qi: chronic cough, wheezing. Tonifies the Kidneys/Stabilizes and Binds: this herb moistens and is neither hot nor cold, therefore it is often used for wasting and thirsting disorder. Helps bind Essence (Jing) and treats spermatorrhea, frequent and scanty urination, nocturnal emissions and vaginal discharge. Nourishes Blood/Calms Shen.

Basic Habitat/Botany:

Dioscorea is a genus with over 600 to 800 species, making it one of the largest genera of the plant kingdom. They are tuberous herbaceous perennial lianas (long-stemmed woody vines that take root at the base of trees, using them as vertical support to climb up into the trees canopy’s for light). These plants can grow to 2-12m or more. They are mostly dioecious, with separate male and female parts. Several species, known simply as yams, are important agricultural crops, grown for their large tubers.

Native to China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan, it likes tropical and warm temperate regions of the world. Particularly important as a crop in parts of Africa, Asia and Oceania.

Chinese Yams (Shan Yao) Parts Most Frequently Used: Roots, Tubers

Flavors/Temps: Sweet, Neutral

Caution: Not recommended if excess damp or stagnation is present.

History/Folklore: The name “Dioscorea” is dervived from the Ancient Greek physician and botanist Dioscorides. Use raw to tonify Yin, dry-fry to strengthen the Spleen. Steroidal saponins can be converted through a series of chemical reactions into steroid hormones used in medicine and contraceptives. Good quality yams are thick, firm, powdery and have a clear white cross section. Chinese Yams lower blood-sugar and are therefore used to treat diabetes. Because the Kidney system in TCM is associated with congenital health and fertility, and the Spleen system is associated with acquired health through food and digestion, the herb is considered a foundation tonic herb for good health and development. It is rare for one herb to strengthen both Congenital and Acquired Qi. Traditionally, yams from Henan (Huaiqing) are believed to have the highest medicinal properties and nutritional qualities. Thus, these yams are often called “Huai Shan Yao.” Yams are usually harvested after the frost’s descent in the Chinese 18th solar term. Chinese Yams have long been considered by the Chinese to be an excellent herb for promoting longevity, helping prevent cardiovascular problems, building Blood (Xue), increasing appetite, improving fertility (including increasing sperm count) and lowering blood sugar levels.

Chinese Yams are considered to have gentle, though powerful, therapeutic properties and can therefore be used safely by all ages.

The vine is considered to be quite aggressive, taking over everything within reach, so be aware if you decide to plant any in your garden.

Key Constituents:

Saponins, Choline,  d-Abscisin II, Vitamin C, Mannan, Phytic acid, Allantoin, Diosgenin, Mucilage, Starch, Sugar, Protein, Free amino acids, Amylase. Estrogen.

Did you know?


Dioscorea is a name commonly used for two plants: D. polystachya and D. oppositioflia.


Used to Produce Steroids

Chinese Yams (Dioscorea) contain diosgenin that is used to produce the steroids estrogen and progesterone in the laboratory.

Fun fact!

Don't Eat With Carp

Not recommended to be eaten with the fish carp as it can cause upset stomach, vomiting and abdominal pain.


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