How Herbalists Use Peony

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Although it is much loved as a garden flower, few people realize the rich herbal history behind the beautiful peony. Despite this plant’s current masquerade as a showy garden ornamental, herbalists have never entirely forgotten its true value.  Read this article and learn how herbalists use peony. 

Common Types of Peony

Modern herbalists use three main species of peony: Paeonia lactiflora, P. officinalis,  and P. suffruticosa. It’s quite likely that you have at least one of them in your own garden!

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 many shades of white, red, pink, and yellow. A large majority of the beautiful garden peonies grown today are one of these species,

The leaves and stems of these species die back to the ground at the end of the growing season every year.

​P.  suffruticosa has woody stems and grows like a small tree or shrub. Hence, its other name: tree peony. Tree peony, sometimes called Moutan peony, is native to China.

Parts Used

My mom and I love to grow peonies for the flowers. If you’re like us, that’s probably why you planted them in your garden, too.

Even though the flowers are gorgeous, they aren’t the herbal parts of peony. Herbalists use the dried roots. They also make a distinction between two different ways to prepare the roots. It’s a little confusing, because they call the two types red peony and white peony.

White Peony and  Red Peony

It sounds like they are referring to the different colors of the flowers. However, they actually mean the colors of the roots!

To make it even more confusing, 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 only to P. lactiflora.

But a very thorough article by Subhuti Darmananda, the director of the Institute for Traditional Medicine, explains that red vs white refers to the condition of the roots. White peony roots go through a process of peeling, boiling, and slicing. Then they are ready for drying. Red peony roots still have their reddish brown outer layer.

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.

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 its own class of action and addressed separately.

How Herbalists Use Peony

According to TCM, white peony root is a tonic for the blood. It is often used for women’s gynecological conditions. Herbalist Matthew Wood, in The Earthwise Herbal, suggests that peony is specific for gynecological problems related to imbalances with excess of estrogen.

In modern herbalism, peony is a nervine. This use has a longstanding tradition behind it. Dating as far back as Galen, P. officinalis is attributed as a remedy for epilepsy and spasmodic disorders in children. King’s American Dispensatory of 1898 references a mixture of thyme, scullcap, peony, and black cohosh for this purpose. King’s also notes use of a mixture of peony and black cohosh as an antispasmodic during outbreaks of pertussis.

It’s also reputed to be useful for fevers, especially when there is fluid loss through copious sweating and there are seizures.

The final major use historically for peony is as an antispasmodic and for pain relief. Peony and Licorice Combination (equal parts of each), is still used this way in TCM. As an antispasmodic, peony was especially prized for abdominal cramps, menstrual cramps, or cramps in the hands, feet, and calves.

Cherished Flower, Cherished Root

Knowing the history of our garden flowers is a wonderful way to connect with our herbal past. There are so many with forgotten histories and surprising stories. Peony is a perfect example.

Are you curious about the species of peony growing in your garden? Modern gardeners have many gorgeous varieties and species of peony to choose from! Use the  registry at the American Peony Society to look up your varieties and learn the species.

About Me

I’m an herbalist in Atlanta, Georgia. My herbal recipe book, The Complete Guide to Adaptogens, is available where ever books are sold!

 

Herbalist and Writer | Website

Agatha is an herbalist and author in Atlanta, Georgia. She founded Indie Herbalist in 2011. Her herbal recipe book, The Complete Guide to Adaptogens, is available wherever books are sold. To listen to her podcast or enroll in one of her herbal courses, visit Indie Herbalist's sister site, Teacup Alchemy.

9 thoughts on “How Herbalists Use Peony

  1. Our peonies have been especially beautiful this year. We would love for you to visit us and checkout any other plants that could be useful or used medicinally. Hope to hear from you and see you soon.

  2. Love the detail in this article. It’s important to know the difference between each herb.
    Thank you!.

  3. Wow! I was just clipping the last of my Peony blooms this morning and thinking about where the Peony had started. I don’t even know which Peony I have because it was a rescue (didn’t even know it was a Peony at the time of rescue!), but I know a bit more about it now in the big scope of all the information. Thank you for this wonderful post and link. Cheers!

  4. Hi Aunt Linda! It seems like all of the peonies have been extra pretty this year. We just started carrying some at the floral shop and I’ve been soooo excited to see them everyday. It’s great to hear from you. I hope to see everyone again soon! 🙂

  5. Rescued peonies! What an exciting find. I think the history behind herbs and our heirloom flowers is pretty fascinating. It’s nice to know that others think so, too! 🙂

  6. I stopped for a “curb-side” rescue about 7-8 years ago, people here put out “free stuff” all the time. There was a 1 gallon potted plant that I had no idea was and for years I showed it to every visitor to my garden to see if they could identify it. I did transplant it put it into a 10 gallon pot and kept it low and sweeping. No one could figure out what it was. Even as a “green leaf” plant it was quite beautiful. Then last year it bloomed! It’s a beautiful Chinese Lilac. I went back to the house to tell the lady there about it and she said that she remembered having a potted plant that didn’t do anything and she gave-up on it. Lucky me!

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