A plant now commonly relegated to the flower bed, the beautiful garden peony has a startling herbal history behind it. Roots of Paeonia lactiflora and P. officinalis were once a cherished herbal remedy in early American botanical medicine and have a tradition of use that dates back thousands of years to the ancient Greeks and Chinese. Despite this plant's current masquerade as a showy garden ornamental, herbalists have never entirely forgotten about this herb.
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There are three main species of peony used by modern herbalists: P. lactiflora, P. officinalis, and P. suffruticosa .
P. lactiflora and P. officinalis are both common garden flowers in the United States. P. lactiflora is originally from Asia, while P. officinalis is native to Europe. Both species can have either single or double flowers and come in a wide variety of colors that have been bred over the years as the plants were less often used for health and more likely to be enjoyed as a garden flower. These plants are "herbaceous"- meaning that the leaves and stems die back to the ground at the end of the growing season every year.
P. suffruticosa, on the other hand, has woody stems, and grows like a small tree or shrub. Hence it's other name- Tree Peony. It's also called Moutan Peony, and is native to China.
Although P. lactiflora, P. officinalis, and P. suffruticosa are the formal names for these plants it's most common to hear about Peony, White Peony, Red Peony, and Moutan Peony when herbalists are discussing them.
Peony (with no modifiers), in herbal parlance, usually means the herbalist is not concerned about whether the material used is from p. lactiflora or p. officinalis. The Eclectics and ancient Greeks used P. officinalis, while TCM made use of p. lactiflora. Modern "Western" style herbalists are generally content to use whatever garden peony is available, or use p. lactiflora because it is commonly available in commerce. Both varieties can be used in much the same ways for the same reasons.
White vs Red
Herbalists are getting more picky when they start specifying White or Red peony. It doesn't help that there is even some differing opinion among them concerning what is meant by Red Peony vs White Peony. The only thing easily agreed upon that it does not refer to the flower color.
Some sources, such as Leslie Tierra in Healing with the Herbs of Life, suggest that red peony refers to “wild peony”, while white peony refers to P. lactiflora. But a very thorough article by Subhuti Darmananda, PhD- the Director of the Institute for Traditional Medicine- explains that red vs white refers to the condition of the roots, and can encompass several species. Peony roots left with their reddish covering intact are called red peony. Peony roots that have had the bark peeled away and are lightly boiled, sliced, and dried, are called white peony.
In this line of thinking, both red and white peony can come from the same plant. They are usually sourced from P. lactiflora, sometimes from P. veitchii or other species (several herbaceous Chinese species are treated identically in TCM), but never from P. suffruticosa.
Interestingly, there was not always a distinction in TCM between white and red peony although it was mentioned in old texts by at least the 16th century. Regardless, P. suffruticosa was always given it's own class of action and addressed separately. In modern herbalism, red peony and Moutan peony are viewed as having similar actions, although Moutan is considered the stronger of the two.
White peony (the root without its outer covering) behaves as a tonic for the blood and increases circulation. It is often used for women's gynecological conditions. For women's disorders, peony is considered useful during instances involving anemia, irregular menses, or pms. Herbalist Matthew Wood, in The Earthwise Herbal, suggests that peony is specific for gynecological problems related to imbalances with excess of estrogen.
Peony has also been prized as a nervine, and attributed as a remedy for epilepsy and nervous or spasmodic disorders in children, dating as far back as Galen. King's American Dispensatory of 1898 references a mixture of thyme, scullcap, peony, and black cohosh for this purpose. King's also notes that a mixture of peony and black cohosh was useful during outbreaks of pertussis.
It's also reputed to be useful for fevers, especially when there is fluid loss through copious sweating and/or febrile seizures.
The final major use historically for peony is as an antispasmodic and for pain relief. Peony and Licorice Combination (equal parts of each), was used for this purpose in TCM. As an antispasmodic, peony was especially prized for abdominal cramps, menstrual cramps, or cramps in the hands, feet, and calves.
The addition of aconite to the formula made it more suitable for cramps or muscle spasms in the back and legs. Adding cinnamon, ginger, and jujube offered pain relief from muscular aches associated with acute illness like the flu.
Modern studies appear to have confirmed that there may be merit in white peony's traditional uses for pain relief and autoimmune inflammatory conditions.
By leaving the skin of the roots intact, (which leaves more of the plant's bitter principles available to the herbalist) the end result is an herb that behaves in a manner that makes it traditionally useful for clearing bruises and swelling from traumatic injuries; stemming excessive bleeding from inflammatory conditions (think hemorrhagic fevers or other conditions where there might be nosebleeds, vomiting of blood, or bleeding under the skin).
It's best to plant peonies in the fall as bare root plants, even though it is tempting to buy them in May when they are in full bloom. Organic Gardening has a very informative article on how to grow peonies. Although I haven't purchased from Peony Envy, they have great resources for garden planning and give a glimpse into just how many stunning modern varieties are available. However, if you are interested in using peony as an herb, it will be best to purchase them through a company that specializes in herbs so that you know you are getting a medicinal variety. Peonies are hardy and adapt to a wide variety of climates, although they do require cold weather for winter dormancy.
If you want to grow peony from seeds, you will need lots of patience. Peony seeds need to be tucked into pots and left outside, and sometimes it will take up to two years before they sprout! It's more common to divide established plants at the roots to propagate peony.
Whether started from seeds or transplanted as roots, peonies are certainly deserving of a place in any garden for their beauty alone, but especially in the gardens of herbalists- where they can be appreciated for their beauty, their practicality, and their versatility. The forgotten aspects of Peony's history make this flower even more intriguing as a feature in our gardens.
All the Best,
Agatha is the author of the popular new herbal recipe book, Adaptogens: Your Guide to Radiant Health. With more than 75 creative and surprisingly easy to make recipes for everyday herbal health, this book will quickly become your new favorite reference for vibrant herbal living.