Objective According to theory of Chinese medicine property, the ecological environment shapes properties (natures and flavors) of Chinese materia medica (CMM) and there are close relationships between certain natures and flavors. However, to date these observations have not been validated scientifically in the context of the whole flora of a region. The present study aims to address this gap. Methods We collected geographical distributions of 3637 vascular plant species native to the Xinjiang region of northwest China, of which around 812 are medicinal plants. The CMM property characters of these medicinal plants were also collected. All medicinal plants were then analyzed in the occurrence of their natures (cold, cool, neutral, warm, and hot) and flavors (sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and pungent). Possible correlations between these properties and environmental factors, notably climate, as well as correlations with plant species richness of the wider native flora of Xinjiang were then investigated using permutation test and regression. Results Cold species (38.5%) were more numerous than warm (21.0%) and neutral (22.3%), while bitter species (43.3%) were more numerous than pungent (25.6%), sweet (22.4%) and sour (6.7%) ones. Species with bitter flavor were most commonly also cold (48.6%) in nature, sour flavor usually coincided with cold (44.2%) or cool nature (26.0%), whereas pungent or sweet species tended to be warm (34.4%, 28.4%) or neutral (27.8%, 28.4%). The percentages of species of cold/cool nature, bitter flavor were higher in mountainous regions, and the percentages of warm/neutral and pungent/sweet/sour were higher in basins. The percentages of species of cold/cool, bitter were positively correlated with actual evapotranspiration (AET), and also plant species richness but had a bell-shaped relationship with potential evapotranspiration (PET), whereas the inverse situation was shown for warm/neutral and pungent/sweet/sour species. Conclusion Analysis of the data in Xinjiang region of China supports the qualitative observations concerning natures and flavors in traditional theory of Chinese medicine property. Specifically, (i) certain natures and flavors co-occur more frequently than if randomly distributed; (ii) correlations between proportions of natures and flavors and climatic variables suggest a role for the environment in shaping the properties of CMM.
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