China: From the goats herd to the street market
The popular name of horny goat weeds came in use in China (if we go with the saying) after a shepherd observed that his goats become excessively ‘sexual’ after eating Epimedium leaves.
Epimedium sagittatum was the first Epimedium mentioned in the classical Shen Pen Ts’ao Ching pharmacopeia (Han dynasty) and in many other Chinese herbals, including the famous Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu of Li Shih-Chen (Ming dynasty) under the name ‘yin yang huo’. Herba Epimedii was used in the form of cut and dried leaves, mainly against impotence, but also anti-rheumatism, usually in combination with other herbs. Scientific studies have confirmed its aphrodisiac effect, due to a class of substances (flavonoids) found in the leaves and rhizomes, particularly icariin.
In time, this traditional use has been replaced though by uprooting and selling of dry rhizomes from the wild. The famous plant hunter Dan Hinkley and others travellers to China described how large quantities of dry rhizomes are sold on the margin of roads and markets. Considering that some species are known only from certain limited geographical areas, these over-harvesting practices forecast a pessimistic future on their survival and conservation. Prof. W. T. Stearn, in an article published in Kew Bulletin, suggested that the introduction into cultivation of the faster growing species such as E. alpinum and E. pinnatum subsp. colchicum, may satisfy the need of Epimedium for hundreds of Chinese drug companies, and thus save from extinction the Chinese species. Hopefully someone will listen to his idea.
It is good to know that icariin (considered a sort of natural Viagra), the substance responsible for its fame, was also proved to stimulate osteoblast activity in bone tissue, and thus products based on Epimedium extract could be potentially used for the treatment of osteoporosis as well. In recent years, besides icariin, other new flavonoids isolated from different Epimedium species are proven to have phytoestrogenic and antioxidant properties.
A few of the Horny-Goat Weeds
Like with many other ‘newly discovered’ medicinal plants, especially coming from China, advertised as all-cures remedies, Epimedium extracts are sold today as dietary supplements mainly for enhancing the erectile function. In fact the exact dosage of icariin (as active substance in dry powdered rhizomes or leaves) necessary to achieve ‘high performances’ has not been proven yet, not to mention that probably many of the companies selling such products (especially on-line) may not even know how an Epimedium looks like! Beware!!!
Personally, I prefer to look at E. sagittatum and its evergreen counterparts like: E. franchetii, E. myrianthum, E. acuminatum, E. davidii, E. wushanense, E. brevicornu, to mention just a few, as wonderful plants for the shade garden.