Gaetbangpung is the Korean name for Glehnia littoralis, a plant in the carrot family. Its other Korean names are haebangpung, bitbangpung, and haesasam (the latter means “wild ginseng in the sand”). This species grows in sandy, windswept coastal areas around the North Pacific. It has been used in traditional Chinese, Japanese, and Korean medicine for centuries. Wind is closely associated with various ailments in traditional East Asian medicine, especially sudden episodes such as heart attack and stroke, and bangpung means both “shutting out the wind” and “preventing a stroke.” In Korea, gaetbangpung is a traditional remedy or preventive medicine for cough, high blood pressure, fever, pain, and neuralgia, in addition to stroke.
Glehnia littoralis is a prostrate perennial herb up to 20 centimeters high with a taproot up to 70 cm long and 1.5 cm in diameter. The purplish stems grow outward from the center of the plant and the fleshy, dark green leaves have three ovate lobes with serrate margins and are 5-15 cm long. The white, umbellate inflorescence is 3-6 cm across and grows from the center of the plant. Most parts of the plant are covered in tiny hairs. The plant grows on dunes in a band a few meters wide just above the high tide line. A few times a year, during storms, the plants are submerged and release their seeds, which float away and then settle in favorable areas and germinate. Glehnia littoralis is rare throughout its range because of habitat degradation due to tourism and the construction of roads and breakwaters. In places where tourists know about the medicinal value of the plant, they often harvest it irresponsibly.
One of the few places where Glehnia littoralis still occurs in South Korea is Bongsan-ri, a village in Uljin County on the west coast. Bongsan-ri has no natural harbor, so agriculture is more important than fishing. About 25 households grow gaetbangpung in small plots at the top of the beach, for domestic consumption or to sell it in the local traditional market. Roots are harvested from plants at least 3 years old, dried, and used locally or sold to herbalists. They are sliced and boiled with other herbs to make a medicinal juice. They have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anticarcinogenic, and antiviral properties. The leaves are used as a culinary herb, either fresh or dried, in salads or mixed with rice dishes, etc. They have a slightly minty taste and become sweeter the more they’re chewed. Because the plant is tough and fleshy, it keeps in the refrigerator for about 15 days and withstands long cooking, making it a good addition to boiled meat or fish dishes. Though gaetbangpung can be cultivated in regular garden plots, it grows better on exposed dunes, and locals say that gaetbangpung from the dunes tastes much better than that grown near the house. Unfortunately, because most residents of the village are elderly, the management of gaetbangpung may not continue into the future.
Over time, the seeds of cultivated Glehnia littoralis, no longer inundated and dispersed by seawater, become less viable and less genetically diverse. It is therefore crucial to protect this plant in its wild state. Efforts are underway in Bongsan-ri to preserve spontaneous patches of gaetbangpung.