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Botanical: Paeonia officinalis (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Ranunculaceae
The Paeony is not indigenous to Great Britain, and only grows wild on an island called the Steep Holmes, in the Severn, where it was probably introduced some centuries ago.
The varieties Female and Male Paeony have no reference to the sexes of the flowers. The roots of the Female or Common Paeony are composed of several roundish, thick knobs or tubers, which hang below each other, connected by strings. The stems are green (red when quite young) and about 2 1/2 feet high. The leaves are composed of several unequal lobes, which are cut into many segments; they are of a paler green colour than those of the so-called Male Paeony, and the flowers are of a deeper purple colour. From this variety are derived the double garden Paeonies.
Many of the species have very fragrant flowers.
The roots of the Male Paeony - the kind found wild on the island in the Severn - are composed of several oblong knobs, hanging by strings fastened to the main head. The stems are the same height as in the preceding, and bear large single flowers, composed of five or six large roundish red (or sometimes white) petals. The flowers of both sorts open in May, the seeds ripening in the autumn.
The last-named variety is the kind formerly much cultivated for the roots, which were celebrated for their medicinal value in disorders of the head and nerves. It has been known also as Paeonia Corallina.
The genus is supposed to have been named after the physician Paeos, who cured Pluto and other gods of wounds received during the Trojan War with the aid of this plant.
- The superstitions connected with the Pzeony are numerous. In ancient times, it was thought to be of divine origin, an emanation from the moon, and to shine during the night, protecting shepherds and their flocks, and also the harvest from injury, driving away evil spirits and averting tempests. Josephus speaks of the Paeony as a wonderful and curious plant. He says - according to Gerard - that 'to pluck it up by the roots will cause danger to he that touches it, therefore a string must be fastened to it in the night and a hungry dog tied thereto, who being allured by the smell of roasted flesh set towards him may pluck it up by the roots.' Pliny and Theophrastus assert:
- 'that of necessity it must be gathered in the night, for if any man shall pluck of the fruit in the daytime, being seen of the woodpecker, he is in danger to lose his eyes.'
The seeds used to be strung as a necklace and worn as a charm against evil spirits.
- Gerard adds:
- 'But all these things be most vainc and frivolous, for the root of Peionne may be removed at any time of the yeare, day, or houre whatsoever.
A drink called 'Paeony-water' made from the plant was once much used, and the kernels or seeds were used in cookery as a spice.
- Gerard says:
- 'The black graines (that is the seed) to the number of fifteene taken in wine or mead is a speciall remedie for those that are troubled in the night with the disease called the Nightmare, which is as though a heavy burthen were laid upon them and they oppressed therewith, as if they were overcome with their enemies, or overprest with some great weight or burthen; and they are also good against melancholie dreames.'
'Stick the cream with Paeony kernels,' Mrs. Glasse's Cookery (1796).
---Cultivation---Peonies are extremely hardy and will grow in almost any soil or situation, in sun or shade. The best soil, however, is a deep, rich loam, which should be well trenched and manured, previous to planting.
Propagation is by division of roots, which increase very quickly. The best season for transplanting is towards the end of August, or the beginning of September. In dividing the roots, care must be taken to preserve a bud upon the crown of each offset.
Single varieties are generally propagated from seeds, sown in autumn, soon after they are ripe, upon a bed of light soil, covering them with 1/2 inch of soil. Water well in dry weather and keep clear from weeds. Leave the young plants in this bed two years, transplanting in September.
---Part Used---The root, dried and powdered. It is dug in the autumn, from plants at least two years old. The roots should be cleansed carefully in cold water with a brush and only be allowed to remain in the water as short a time as possible. Then spread out on trays in the sun, or on the floor, or on shelves in a kitchen, or other warm room for ten days or more. When somewhat shrunken, roots may be finished off more quickly in greater heat over a stove or gas fire, or in an open oven, when the fire has just gone out. Dried roots must always be dry to the core and brittle.
Paeony root occurs in commerce in pieces averaging 3 inches long and 1/2 to 3/4 inch in diameter, spindle-shaped, strongly furrowed and shrunken longitudinally, of a pinkish grey or dirty white colour, generally having been scraped. The transverse section is starchy and radiate, the rays more or less tinged with purple. The root has no odour, but its taste is sweet at first, and then bitter.
---Medicinal Action and Uses---Antispasmodic, tonic. Paeony root has beensuccessfully employed in convulsions and spasmodic nervous affections, such as epilepsy, etc.
It was formerly considered very efficacious for lunacy. An old writer tells us: 'If a man layeth this wort over the lunatic as he lies, soon he upheaveth himself whole.'
The infusion of 1 OZ. of powdered root in a pint of boiling water is taken in wineglassful doses, three or four times daily.
An infusion of the powdered root has been recommended for obstructions of the liver, and for complaints arising from such obstructions.
Paeonia Albiflora, distinguished by its smooth recurved follicles, is a native of Siberia, and the whole of Northern Asia; the roots of this are sometimes boiled by the natives, and eaten in broth; they also grind the seeds and put them into their tea.
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Bear in mind "A Modern Herbal" was written with the conventional wisdom of the early 1900's. This should be taken into account as some of the information may now be considered inaccurate, or not in accordance with modern medicine.
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