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Siraitia grosvenorii is an herbaceous perennial vine native to southern People’s Republic of China and Northern Thailand and best known for its fruit, the luo han guo (traditional Chinese: 羅漢果/simplified Chinese: 罗汉果; pinyin: luóhàn guǒ; literally “arhat fruit” or monk’s fruit). It is one of four species in the genus Siraitia. Botanical synonyms include Momordica grosvenorii and Thladiantha grosvenorii. The fruit is one of several that have been called longevity fruit.
The other species of the genus Siraitia are: S. siamensis from Thailand, S. sikkimensis and S. silomaradjae from India, and S. taiwaniana from the Republic of China (Taiwan).
The vine grows to 3 to 5 m long, climbing over other plants by means of tendrils which twine round anything they touch. The narrow, heart-shaped leaves are 10–20 cm long. The fruit is globose, 5–7 cm in diameter, and contains a sweet, fleshy, edible pulp and numerous seeds.
The fruit extract is nearly 300 times sweeter than sugar and has been used as a natural sweetener in China for nearly a millennium due to its flavor and lack of food energy, only 2.3 kcal/g (9.6 kJ/g). It has also been used in traditional Chinese medicine.
It is grown primarily in the southwestern Chinese province of Guangxi (mostly in the mountains of Guilin), as well as in Guangdong, Guizhou, Hunan, and Jiangxi. These mountains lend the plants shadows and often are surrounded by mists; because of this the plants are protected from the worst of the sun. Nonetheless, the climate in this southern province is warm. The plant is rarely found in the wild and has hence been cultivated for hundreds of years.
Records as early as 1813 mention the cultivation of this plant in the Guangxi province. At present, the Guilin mountains harbor a plantation of 16 square kilometers with a yearly output of about 10,000 fruits. Most of the plantations are located in Yongfu County and Lingui County, which in China are renowned for the extraordinary number of centenarians. This is usually attributed to the consumption of this fruit and the unspoiled nature. The inhabitants themselves, however, are of the opinion that the reason lies in their calm lifestyle and simple nutrition.
Longjiang town (“Dragon River”) in Yongfu County has acquired the name “home of the Chinese luohanguo fruit”; a number of companies specialised in making luohanguo extracts and finished products have been set up in the area. The Yongfu Pharmaceutical Factory is the oldest of these.