Which Paeony?

Dioscorides (III 140) identified two forms of paeony used in medicine: the male, with leaves like those of walnut, the root the thickness of a finger, white and astringent to taste, and the female, with leaves split like those of Cretan Alexanders and a root with seven to eight tubers like acorns. These are good descriptions of Paeonia mascula and Paeonia officinalis, respectively. With the description of the pods on the top of the stems like almonds, containing red seeds like pomegranate and five or six black seeds tending to purple, we have a clear and unequivocal description of the medicinal plant. This description is also given by Ibn Sina.

The Renaissance authors give similar descriptions and generally agree that the female paeony Paeonia ojficinalis is commonly grown but the male paeony is unusual. Turner records seeing the female paeony in England, Germany and Antwerp. Fuchs distinguishes the two types and states that they are mainly found in gardens but also occur in the wild in the mountains in France, Switzerland and from the Tyrol in northern Italy to northern Albania, which interestingly is the same as the distribution given by Halda (2004) for Paeonia officinalis. Mattioli confirms that it is usually the female paeony that is seen and that he had seen the male paeony only twice, one sent from Germany and one sent from the botanic garden at Pisa. Dodoens describes both paeonies as garden plants and his description is from observation as he likens the divided leaves of the female paeony to the leaves of angelica or lovage, and observes that the flowers of the female are a less intense red than those of the male paeony. He highlights the yellow threads or thrums (stamens), four great cods or husks which open when ripe, the red lining, polished black seeds and long, fragrant root.

According to Stern (1946), Paeonia officinalis and Paeonia mascula were the only species described until others were added by Charles de l’Ecluse. His descriptions of paeonies in Rariorum Plantamm Historia, published in 1601, include Paeonia peregrina and several more unnamed paeonies. His name was given to the white peony Paeonia clusii, which was discovered by in Crete by Pierre Belon between 1546 and 1549. Stern gives a detailed account of the nomenclature of the paeony and explains that in 1753 Linnaeus considered the male and female paeony to be the same species. He named them Paeonia officinalis var. feminea and var. mascula. In 1768 Philip Miller described the male paeony as Paeonia mascula and this name has remained in use, and the female paeony retained the name Paeonia officinalis. There are three other subspecies, so the correct name is Paeonia officinalis subsp. officinalis but Paeonia officinalis will usually suffice.

Gerard gives a similar description to Dodoens and describes the double red and pink varieties already being grown in London gardens. Parkinson gives accurate illustrations, and then discourses at length on how varied the progeny of seed from one plant can be as both single and double plants are produced. He also refers to the ‘the doubtful female paeony”, which has features of both Paeonia mascula and Paeonia officinalis and is probably a hybrid between the two. Parkinson comments on the attractive intermingling of the black seeds and ‘crimson grains’. Culpeper gives a similar vivid description of the two species but is the only author to ascribe male and female properties to the respective plants. The authors make no distinction between the usage of the two types. In places, Paeonia mascula is preferred but Parkinson confirms the experience of Turner that it is mainly Paeonia officinalis that is cultivated and therefore is in common usage. Paeony fell out of use in Europe and there has been almost no analysis of the constituents of either Paeonia mascula or Paeonia officinalis.