Fish Wort

Houttuynia cordata

Herbs gallery - Fish Wort

Common names

  • Chameleon Plant
  • Fish Wort
  • Heartleaf

Fish wort (botanical name Houttuynia cordata) belongs to the genus Houttuynia, which comprises two species, the other being Houttuynia emeiensis. Fish wort is a flowering plant which is indigenous to various regions of Asia, including southern China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. Usually, this herb is found growing naturally in damp, shady sites.

An herbaceous plant growing perennially, fish wort generally grows up to a height of anything between 20 cm and 80 cm. The part of the stem that is proximal is trailing and it generates adventitious roots. On the other hand, the distal (away from the root or origin) part of the stem has vertical growth. This plant produces alternate leaves that are broad and heart-shaped. The leaves measure anything between 3 cm and 9 cm in length and are usually 3 cm to 8 cm wide. Generally, the plant produces flowers during the summer months. The flowers have a greenish-yellow hue and appear on terminal spike that are about 2 cm to 3 cm long. Each flower has about four to six large white hued basal bracts.

This ancient Chinese herb is well-known for its famous therapeutic properties. Fish wort is known for its additional unchecked and invasive growth. It spreads very rapidly over an infinite area.

Parts used

Fresh leaves, rhizome.


Fish wort has various uses, including therapeutic as well as culinary. The credit for discovering the therapeutic properties of this plant goes to the ancient Chinese people. A formula prepared by drying and brewing the fish wort is very useful for detoxifying the body, treating constipation, high blood pressure (hypertension), and tuberculosis. In addition, this herb also possesses diuretic properties. Currently, the fish wort is also becoming increasingly popular in the West owing to the several therapeutic properties.

This herb has also been widely utilized in folk medicine for detoxification and also for diuresis. In folk medicine, fish work also has widespread use for its anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-leukemic activities. In recent times, findings of a number of studies have hinted that fish wort may also possess anti-obesity attributes. Chinese scientists employed fish wort to deal with conditions like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). In addition, this herb is traditionally used for treating pneumonia.

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), physicians often administer fish wort injection with a view to alleviate abnormal symptoms related to the lungs, refractory hemoptysis, infectious diseases and malignant pleural effusion. This practice is mainly followed in China. In vitro studies have shown that administration of fish wort injection works to directly inhibits pseudo rabies herpes virus.

Although fish wort is widely used in traditional Chinese medicine, when this herb is administered in injection form it often results in acute allergic reactions.

People in Japan use the dried leaves of fish wort to prepare a beverage, which is locally known as "dokudami cha". This beverage is used widely in the form of a common detoxification agent to eliminate harmful bacteria from the body.

The beverage "dokudami cha" is also known as "Houttuynia cordata tea" and it is very popular in Japan. This beverage is very useful for treating chronic earaches. Fish wort is also referred to as the "poison blocking herb" and since long people believe that this herb possesses amazing therapeutic properties. In China, people often call fish wort as the "fishy smell herb" because the leaves of this herb emit a stinky fishy smell when they are crushed or pressed hard. Therefore, the name fish wort. In Vietnam, people refer to this herb as "fish mint" for its foul fishy smell.

This medicinal herb possesses well-known healing properties which has earning it the name "dokudami". While "doku" denotes poison, the term "dami" means the ability to stop or block the poison from spreading. Interestingly enough, fish wort keeps detoxifying a person's system even when he or she is sleeping, by collecting the toxins in the body and subsequently discharging them from the body.

People in Nepal use the juice extracted from the roots of fish wort to treat indigestion. In addition, they also apply the root juice topically to the skin for treating wounds and various skin diseases. People in China as well as Japan use the aerial parts of fish wort for medicinal purpose. Fish wort is used in traditional Chinese medicine for treating infections of the respiratory tract, sores, carbuncles and urinary tract inflammations.

Culinary uses

In Vietnam, people cultivate fish wort in the form of a leafy vegetable locally called "giấp cá" or "diếp cá", and use it in the form of a fresh herbal garnish. The flavour of the leaf of this herb is quite unusual and is generally described as "fishy" - as a result the plant has earned the moniker "fish mint". Owing to the foul fishy smell of the leaves, this herb is not liked by everyone. This is unlike some other more commonly used herbs such as mint and basil.

In the north-eastern regions of India, especially in the state of Meghalaya, fish wort is locally called "ja mardoh" and people in this part of the world use this herb in salads. Alternatively, they also consume it after cooking with a number of other vegetables. In another north-eastern Indian state, Manipur, fish wort is locally called "toningkok" and people there use the herb to garnish two ethnic side dishes - singju and eromba. In India's Assam, fish wort is known as "masunduri" and it is extremely popular among the tribal populace of the state. They consume this herb in the form of a salad and also cook the leaves with fish to prepare a fish curry.

People inhabiting the provinces of Guizhou, Sichuan, and Yunnan in south-western China use the root of fish wort in the form of a root vegetable. The roots are known as Zhe'ergen. Apart from the roots, they also consume the leaves of this herb.

In several regions which form the native of fish wort, people cultivate the plant in the form of a salad crop and also as a therapeutic herb. People in these areas often consume the leaves and the young shoots of this herb raw or after cooking.

Habitat and cultivation

The herb fish wort (Houttuynia cordata) is native to various regions that range from India and Nepal in the west to Japan in the east via China and Indochina. Its natural habitat also ranges from Thailand in the south to the mountainous regions of Java (Indonesia). This herb is found growing naturally from sea-level to an altitude about 2,500 meters. This plant has also been introduced to various places like North America, Australia, some Pacific islands, and New Zealand. Often fish wort is considered to be a weed.

Fish wort thrives in soils that range from moist to damp. Sometimes, it has also been found to grow well in somewhat submerged conditions. This herb can grow well in both partial and full sunlight. Often, fish wort plants may turn out to be invasive in gardens and it may become difficult to get rid of them.

Fish wort is generally propagated by division. This herb is also grown in the form of a groundcover as well as an ornamental plant.


Chemical analysis of the fish wort plant has confirmed that it encloses various pyridine alkaloids; flavonoids; and flavonoid glycosides, including afzerin, isoquercitrin and quercitrin. The essential oil obtained from the herb mainly comprises of dodecanal (lauryl aldehyde), decanal (caprylic aldehyde) and 2-hendecannon (methyl nonyl ketone).

Fish wort also contains a volatile oil, which comprises compounds like decanoyl acetaldehyde (3-keto-dodecanal), limonene, myrcene and 2-hendecanon. It appears that acetaldehyde is mainly accountable for the typical flavour of this herb. In fact, the plant possesses very powerful anti-bacterial properties. As a result, fish wort is widely used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

Side effects and cautions

While no incidences of adverse effects have been reported till date following the use of the herb fish wort (Houttuynia cordata), still it is always advisable that one should consult his/ her doctor prior to using this herb internally. In fact, this is true for all herbal medicines.


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