Wolfberry leaves form on the shoot either in an alternating arrangement or in bundles of up to three, each having a shape that is either lanceolate (shaped like a spearhead longer than it is wide) or ovate (egg-like). Leaf dimensions are 7 cm wide by 3.5 cm broad with blunted or round tips.
The flowers grow in groups of one to three in the leaf axils. The calyx (eventually ruptured by the growing berry) consists of bell-shaped or tubular sepals forming short, triangular lobes. The corolla are lavender or light purple, 9–14 mm wide with five or six lobes shorter than the tube. The stamens are structured with filaments longer than the anthers. The anthers are longitudinally dehiscent.
In the northern hemisphere, flowering occurs from June through September and berry maturation from August to October, depending on the latitude, altitude, and climate.
These species produce a bright orange-red, ellipsoid berry 1–2 cm deep. The number of seeds in each berry varies widely based on cultivar and fruit size, containing anywhere between 10–60 tiny yellow seeds that are compressed with a curved embryo. The berries ripen from July to October in the northern hemisphere.
Lycium, the genus name, is derived from the ancient southern Anatolian region of Lycia (Λυκία). The fruit is known in pharmacological references as Lycii fructus, which is Latin for "Lycium fruit".
"Wolfberry", a commonly used English name, has unknown origin, perhaps resulting from the Mandarin root, gou, meaning wolf or confusion over the genus name, Lycium, which resembles "lycos", the Greek word for wolf.
In the English-speaking world, the name "goji berry" has been used since the early 21st century. The word "goji" is an approximation of the pronunciation of gǒuqǐ, the name for L. chinense in several Chinese dialects, including Hokkien and Shanghainese. This name possibly derives from the same roots as the Persian language term gojeh which means "plum/berry".
Since the early 21st century there has been growing attention for wolfberries for their novelty and nutrient value. They have been termed a superfruit which has led to a profusion of consumer products. In traditional medicine, the whole fruit or its extracts have numerous implied health effects which remain scientifically unconfirmed as of 2014.
Cultivated along the fertile aggradational floodplains of the Yellow River for more than 600 years, Ningxia wolfberries have earned a reputation throughout Asia for premium quality sometimes described commercially as "red diamonds". Government releases of annual wolfberry production, premium fruit grades, and export are based on yields from Ningxia, the region recognized with
The largest annual harvest in China, accounting for 39% (13 million kilograms, 2001) of the nation's total yield of wolfberries, estimated at approximately 33 million kilograms (72 million pounds) in 2001.
Formation of an industrial association of growers, processors, marketers, and scholars of wolfberry cultivation to promote the berry's commercial and export potential.
The nation's only source of therapeutic grade ("superior-grade") wolfberries used by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine.
In addition, commercial volumes of wolfberries grow in the Chinese regions of Inner Mongolia, Qinghai, Gansu, Shaanxi, Shanxi, and Hebei. When ripe, the oblong, red berries are tender and must be picked carefully or shaken from the vine into trays to avoid spoiling. The fruits are preserved by drying them in full sun on open trays or by mechanical dehydration employing a progressively increasing series of heat exposure over 48 hours.
Wolfberries are celebrated each August in Ningxia with an annual festival coinciding with the berry harvest. Originally held in Ningxia's capital, Yinchuan, the festival has been based since 2000 in Zhongning County, an important center of wolfberry cultivation for the region. As Ningxia's borders merge with three deserts, wolfberries are also planted to control erosion and reclaim irrigable soils from desertification.
China, the main supplier of wolfberry products in the world, had total exports generating US$120 million in 2004. This production derived from 82,000 hectares farmed nationwide, yielding 95,000 tons of wolfberries, a production that has increased from larger acreages cultivated in recent years.
On June 18, 2007, the FSA (UK Food Standards Agency) stated that there was a significant history of the fruit being consumed in Europe before 1997, and has removed it from the Novel Foods list. It is now legal to sell the wolfberry in the UK as a food as reported by the British Food Standards Agency, though with concerns over marketing claims over potential health benefits.
Importation of wolfberry plants into the United Kingdom from most countries outside Europe is illegal, due to the possibility they could be vectors of diseases attacking Solanaceae crops, such as potato or tomato.
During the first decade of the 21st Century, farmers in Canada and the United States began cultivating goji on a commercial scale to meet potential markets for fresh berries, juice and processed products.
A 2008 pilot study indicated that parametric data did not show significant differences between subjects receiving Lycium barbarum berry juice and subjects receiving a placebo; the authors, nevertheless, concluded that subjective measures had been affected. This study was subject to various criticisms concerning its experimental design and interpretations.
Published studies have also reported biological effects of Lycium barbarum in animal models, and speculated from this basic research that there may be potential benefits against cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases, vision-related diseases (such as age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma) or from neuroprotective, anticancer or immunomodulatory activity.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Lycium leaves may be used in a tea, together with the root bark. A glucopyranoside (namely (+)-Lyoniresinol-3α-O-β-d-glucopyranoside) and phenolic amides (dihydro-N-caffeoyltyramine, trans-N-feruloyloctopamine, trans-N-caffeoyltyramine and cis-N-caffeoyltyramine) isolated from wolfberry root bark have inhibitory activity in vitro against human pathogenic bacteria and fungi. Phenolic amides isolated from the root bark of Lycium chinense Miller (Lycii Radicis Cortex) were also described as inhibitors of the key pro-inflammatory transcription factor NF-κB.
Two published case reports described elderly women who experienced increased bleeding, expressed as an elevated INR, after drinking quantities of wolfberry tea. Further in vitro testing revealed that the tea inhibited warfarinmetabolism, providing evidence for possible interaction between warfarin and undefined wolfberry phytochemicals.
Atropine, a toxic alkaloid found in other members of the Solanaceae family, occurs naturally in wolfberry fruit. The atropine concentrations of berries from China and Thailand was tested and found to be variable, with a maximum content of 19 ppb, well below a toxic level. However, misidentified or adulterated samples with higher atropine levels may explain earlier, much higher, measurements.
Zeaxanthin. Reported values for zeaxanthin content in dried wolfberries vary considerably, from 2.4 mg per 100 grams to 82.4 mg per 100 grams to 200 mg per 100 grams. The higher values would make wolfberry one of the richest edible plant sources known for zeaxanthin content. Up to 77% of total carotenoids present in wolfberry exist as zeaxanthin.
It is often cultivated for a variety of food and beverage applications within China, but increasingly today for export as dried berries, juice, and pulp or grounds. A major effort is underway in Ningxia, China to process wolfberries for “functional” wine.
Companies marketing the berries often also include the unsupported myth that a Chinese man named Li Qing Yuen, who was said to have consumed wolfberries daily, lived to the age of 256 years (1677–1933).
In February 2007, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) of the United Kingdom, an advisor for food safety to the European Food Safety Authority of the European Union (EU), published an inquiry to retailers and health food stores requesting evidence of significant use of wolfberries in Europe before 1997. Information from this period would document a safety history and evaluate how "novel" the berries are in the EU, affecting their authorization status for sale.
Proponents hoped this review would provide important safeguards for consumers by checking whether new foods are suitable for the whole population, including people with food allergies. Opponents on the other hand feared it would limit consumer choice and protect monopolistic interests rather than the public. Food safety in the EU relies importantly on a scientific basis for label information on foods like wolfberries that may be claimed to furnish health benefits.
In June 2007, the FSA announced its decision that wolfberries indeed had a history of use in Great Britain before 1997. Accordingly, wolfberries do not require registration as a novel food.
Marketing claims under scrutiny in Canada and the United States
In January 2007, marketing statements for a goji juice product were subject of an investigative report by CBC Television's consumer advocacy program Marketplace.
During 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) placed two goji juice distributors on notice with warning letters about marketing claims. These statements were in violation of the United States Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act [21 USC/321 (g)(1)] because they "establish the product as a drug intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease" when wolfberries or juice have had no such scientific evaluation. Additionally stated by the FDA, the goji juice was "not generally recognized as safe and effective for the referenced conditions" and therefore must be treated as a "new drug" under Section 21(p) of the Act. New drugs may not be legally marketed in the United States without prior approval of the FDA.
On May 29, 2009, a class action lawsuit was filed against FreeLife in the United States District Court of Arizona. This lawsuit alleges false claims, misrepresentations, false and deceptive advertising and other issues regarding FreeLife’s Himalayan Goji Juice, GoChi, and TaiSlim products. This lawsuit seeks remedies for consumers who have purchased these products over the past several years.
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