The taxonomy of desert hyacinths (Cistanche)

‘Desert hyacinths’ (genus Cistanche) are a remarkable genus of parasitic plants, some of which are traded widely for herbal medicine or have historical local importance as food. Despite their importance, little or nothing is known about the biology of most species and their taxonomy remains confused, hindering identification. Together with scientists at the University of Reading, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, and institutions in China and the Middle East, our work seeks to unravel taxonomic complexity in this overlooked but important group of plants.

Recently we highlighted the significant potential of desert hyacinths as a global crop. A growing body of research into the cultivation of pharmacologically well-characterised Cistanche taxa in China has enabled a regional supply of traditional herbal medicine at low-level cost and intervention. In the context of a global desertification crisis, there is now significant potential to expand cultivation of Cistanche beyond China, grown as an ancillary crop alongside vegetation planted to halt land degradation. To realise this potential and to monitor trade to control any possible unsustainable harvesting of threatened wild populations, a robust taxonomy, informed by both morphological and molecular data, is needed.

We are using a combined approach that examines the ecology (host range), morphology and DNA sequence data to develop a robust taxonomic framework for Cistanche that can inform trade, agriculture and conservation.



Species of Cistanche that grow in China. From Thorogood et al., 2021.


Cistanche deserticola growing in China. From Thorogood et al., 2021.



Harvested stems of Cistanche deserticola for sale in China. From Thorogood et al., 2021.


Cistanche tubulosa growing in the deserts of the Middle East.


Selected References:

Lei D, Thorogood CJ, Tu P, Song Y, Huang L-F, Aldughayman M, Leon CJ, Hawkins JA. Cistanche deserticola. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. In press
Thorogood, CJ, Leon, CJ, Lei, D, Aldughayman, M, Huang, L-f, Hawkins, JA. Desert hyacinths: An obscure solution to a global problem? Plants, People, Planet. 2021; 3: 302– 307.