Paeony (Paeonia Officinalis)

Family: Paeoniaceae

Part used: root

Paeonia are long-lived, hardy, robust herbaceous perennials. The two main European species are Paeonia officinalis L. subsp. officinalis, ‘female paeony’, which is found from France across to the Balkans and Paeonia mascula (L.) Mill., ‘male paeony’, which is found around the Mediterranean and in Greece, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iraq and Iran. A remnant population of introduced Paeonia mascula persists on Steep Holm, an island in the Bristol Channel. Both species contain several subspecies, which are described and illustrated by Halda (2004) and Page (2005). The two species hybridize if grown together. Both species are considered to be close relatives to Paeonia lactiflora. The Flora of Turkey gives six Paeonia species, including Paeonia mascula but not including Paeonia officinalis.

Paeonia mascula has stiff stems (to 75 cm) which bear large compound leaves and the plant forms large clumps. Solitary, large, single, red terminal flowers with up to 10 petals and numerous yellow stamens occur in April. Three to five smooth, curved seed pods split to reveal bright pink unfertilized ovules and shiny, blue-black fertilized seeds.

Paeonia officinalis is similar with deeply cut divided leaves. The single red flowers occur slightly later and black seeds are formed.

The tuberous roots of each species are different. Paeonia mascula has long thick spreading roots. Paeonia officinalis has round tubers joined by root strings.

Other species used

Paeonia lactiflora Pallas syn. Paeonia albiflora, Chi shao yao, Radix Paeonia rubra is an important herb in traditional Chinese medicine and Kanpo, Japanese herbal medicine. It is a very hardy, herbaceous perennial with stems up to 80 cm high, which bear large, white aromatic flowers in May. It is native to Siberia, Tibet, Mongolia and northern China but has been sourced from cultivation in China for many years. It was introduced into Europe in 1800 and is the ancestor of most garden paeonies currently grown. There are numerous cultivars and natural hybrids which range from white through to deepest red. Other related Chinese species are used such as Paeonia veitchii Lynch.

Tree paeonies, Mu dan pi, are also widely used in traditional Chinese medicine and Kanpo and are hardy, deciduous, ornamental shrubs. There are no European species although many varieties are cultivated in Europe. Botanical identification is complex because wild strains are variable in form, hybridize and interbreed with cultivated specimens. There are complexes (groups of very closely related species) such as Paeonia spontanea and Paeonia delavayii. The Feng Dan, Phoenix, group are the most widely grown for medicinal use. As these have been grown for centuries, these have been assigned the specific name of ostii but there is no definite finding of Paeonia ostii in the wild.


Concentration of paeoniflorin is lower in boiled Paeonia lactiflora, Bai shao yao, Radix Paeonia alba. According to Peng et al (2008) the term Radix Paeonia alba was not used to distinguish processed plant material until the 20th century whereas previous distinctions were based on the color of either root or flower. The root is cultivated in different parts of China from Radix Paeonia rubra, Chi shao yao, and is sometimes treated with sulphur.

Which Paeony?

Paeonia Lactiflora

The commercially available paeony in Britain is Paeonia lactiflora, Chi shao yao, Radix Paeonia rubra, a central herb in traditional Chinese medicine. It has been increasingly used by western herbalists in Britain in recent years. I began to use it in the 1990s partly as it was one of the herbs included in an eczema mixture that was investigated in children. In this context, the action ‘to clear heat and cool blood’ was particularly interesting as eczema, psoriasis and other hot skin conditions can be difficult to treat. I also use it for heat in, for example, hot flushes when the woman is a hot person. A further influence on usage in western herbal medicine is the recommendation by Trickey (1998) for use with liquorice Glycyrrhiza glabra in polycystic ovaries, endometriosis, failure of ovulation and menopausal symptoms. This can be associated with the action ‘to remove stagnant blood’ and paeony is therefore indicated for period pains, lack of periods, scant periods and polycystic ovary disease. It is not used in pregnancy or for period pains due to ‘blood-cold’.

Like rose, paeony seems to be a herb which was widely used but then fell by the wayside. The sources on paeony build on the recommendations of Dioscorides and Galen but fade away in the 19th century. This must reflect diminished usage and indeed Cullen states that no writer or practitioner was found to testify to its virtues from their experience. Now that Paeonia lactiflora has entered into widespread usage, one can ask whether Paeonia mascula or Paeonia officinalis would be equally useful or even better as they could be sourced fresh. On the other hand, Paeonia lactiflora is obtainable from cultivation and has been the subject of a substantial body of research.

Paeony: Seeds, Roots And Flowers

Paeony: Convulsions And Nightmares

Returning To Usage In Gynaecological Conditions

Chevallier discusses usage of Paeonia lactiflora in ‘the four things soup’, a women’s tonic for cramps, pain and dizziness. A recent innovative study has looked at whether there is any pharmacological basis for the pairing of herbs in Chinese medicine, which reminds us of the importance of considering the tradition from which

Paeonia lactiflora arises. The use for women, which does have some parallels with the recommendations from the authors for use in menstrual problems, returns us to the main usage of paeony which is for gynaecological conditions: in endometriosis, polycystic ovaries, irregular periods and menopausal symptoms, particularly when the woman is hot and congested. Wood gives a thorough discussion of the herb and links the western concept of excess oestrogen with the eastern concept of excess heat. He specifically recommends paeony in acneiform sores on the chin, one of the symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome that women find upsetting. I have used it in other skin conditions that are affected by the menstrual cycle such as herpes simplex. The further concept of stagnation seems particularly relevant in polycystic ovary disease and endometriosis.

A problem of the menopause can be anger, and I find paeony particularly useful for this. In a sense this might link back to the antispasmodic action of paeony and the use in nightmares. Rather than perceive menopausal symptoms as associated only with hormonal changes, they could be an expression of disruption within the body as a whole. It has been found that women often find the mood changes associated with the menopause more bothersome that the physical symptoms. The anger or moodiness in the menopause can feel as if it is coming from deep inside, like the anger associated with premenstrual tension, and it is more useful to see it as disturbed energy rather than literally caused by hormonal changes. This leads to use of nervines, liver remedies, cooling remedies and paeony or Astragalus membranaceus for excess heat. I would agree with the assertion of Wood that it is useful in women in the menopause who are pink, warm and overweight. The link with liver stagnation is expressed by the way in changes in diet alone can result in substantial improvement in menopausal symptoms, while the idea of ‘escaping yang’ links with the way in which increased exercise, which keeps the blood moving, can lead to fewer hot flushes.

Paeony: Recommendations

  • The recommendations are for use of Paeonia lactiflora, Chi shao yao, Radix Paeonia rubra.
  • It is useful in menstrual problems particularly associated with inflammation, such as endometriosis, and with congested conditions, such as polycystic ovary syndrome.
  • The cooling nature of paeony makes it particularly useful in eczema and psoriasis, and skin problems associated with the menstrual cycle such as herpes and acne.
  • It is useful for menopausal symptoms and, given the discussion of nightmares, could be especially good for night sweats.
  • It could have a role as an adjunct where epilepsy is proving difficult to control.
  • There can be no recommendations whatsoever for use of seed without further research into their constituents.
  • It would be useful to consider cultivation of Paeonia ojficinalis.

Dosage: Junying (1991) recommends 3-10 g as a daily dose.

Recommendations On Safety

• Do not use in pregnancy.

Authors since Dioscorides have recommended paeony for inducing periods and none of the species should be used in pregnancy although Trickey (1998) considers it safe in pregnancy.

Paeony: Constituents

Volatile oils

Paeonia mascula subsp. hellenica, total 0.13%, Paeonia clusii, total 0.1 %, Paeonia parnassica, total 0.14%: salicylaldehyde 74.6%, thymol, myrtanal. Paeonol in Paeonia clusii and Paeonia parnassica only (root, wild, Greece).

Paeonol is found in Paeonia suffruticosa. Most studies state that paeonol is not found in herbaceous species such as Paeonia lactiflora but it was found in Paeonia veitchii in one study.

Monoterpene glycosides

Paeonia lactiflora, paeoniflorin 0.5-5.8%, albiflorin, benzoyl-paeoniflorin, oxypaeoniflorin and related compounds.

Paeonia lactiflora, paeoniflorin 2.1%, paeoniflorin 0.8%.

Paeonia veitchii, paeoniflorin 5.1%; Paeonia lactiflora, paeoniflorin 5.1-4.6% (12 samples extracted into water, Radix Paeonia rubra, commercial, Britain).

Paeonia veitchii, paeoniflorin 1.26%, albiflorin, oxypaeoniflorin, benzoylalbiflorin.

In Paeonia lactiflora, paeoniflorin content was found to be highest in November and concentration was higher in 1-year-old plants than in 3-year-old plants, and high in Paeonia tenuifolia.


Paeonia lactiflora, 0.025%, seven: oleanolic acid, hederagenin, betulinic acid.

Phenolic acids

Paeonia veitchii, benzoic acid 0.07%, gallic acid 0.06% (5 samples, commercial, Taiwan).


Pentagalloylglupyranose 0-0.96%.

Paeonia suffruticosa, paeonol 0.9-2.2%, gallic acid, paeoniflorin 0.3-1 %, benzoylpaeoniflorin, oxypaeoniflorin (10 commercial samples).