Three Chinese herbal extracts of Drynaria baronii, Angelica sinensis and Cornus officinalis Sieb. et Zucc (referred to as DB, AS, CO, respectively) were investigated for their antitumor potential. These extracts showed very weak cytotoxicity against all nine cultured human cells (normal and tumor cells), but with some tumor-specific cytotoxicity displayed by DB and CO. These extracts showed little or no growth stimulation effects at lower concentrations (so-called 'hormetic effect'). Human oral squamous cell carcinoma cell lines (HSC-2, NA) were relatively resistant to committing apoptosis, as compared with human promyelocytic leukemia HL-60 cells. Electron-spin resonance spectroscopy shows that DB and CO scavenged superoxide anion (generated by hypoxanthine and xanthine oxidase reaction) and hydroxyl radical (generated by Fenton reaction) more efficiently than AS. DB and CO, but not AS, produced broad radical peak(s) and enhanced the superoxide scavenging activity of vitamin C. However, none of the extracts clearly enhanced the cytotoxicity of mitoxantrone, an anthracycline antitumor antibiotic. DB, but not CO and AS, showed weak anti-HIV activity. These data demonstrate several unique antitumor properties of DB.