Epimediums: Barrenworts or Horny-Goat Weeds? – part 2

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. 

Epimediums: Barrenworts or Horny-Goat Weeds? – part 1

How come Epimedium species got to have these contradictory popular names?

Europe: From the aphotecary to the garden

Who would have thought around the year 1600 that one plant from a physic garden, grown to supply the adjacent apothecary would end up famous centuries later for its real medicinal ‘virtues’?

Epimedium alpinum was the first Epimedium to be recorded by the Italian botanist and herbalist Luigi Anguillaria in 1561 from a woodland near Vicenza. Because at that time the genus Epimedium had not been described yet, based on its appearance, he thought it was a medicinal plant described by Dioscorides in De Materia Medica under the name Epimedion, which had presumably contraceptive properties.

 Cultivated as such into a few European gardens during the following years, it was named Epimedium alpinum by Carl Linnaeus in 1753, and thus it became the type of the genus Epimedium. Because at that time plants were cultivated mostly for their (presumed) medicinal properties in physic gardens, it was referred to as ‘Barren Woort’, which became ‘Barrenwort’, a popular name still in use today for this group of Epimediums, although there is no scientific evidence of them having any contraceptive property. We know today that Dioscorides was talking about a different plant, possibly……

Therefore by confusion with another plant, Epimedium was named and used historically in Europe as a contraceptive, which is exactly the opposite of its real medicinal properties that have made it so famous in modern times. As for its ornamental qualities look what they were thinking at that time:

 “The little dingy Epimedium alpinum, known only in the gardens of Botanists, gave no promise of its representing a line of beautiful herbaceous plants, and for a long time it was supposed to be the only one of its race” – from Edward’s Botanical Register (1849).

A few Epimediums from E. alpinum ‘family’:

How wrong they were in 1849! The little Epimedium from the gardens of botanists, contributed to a few hybrids with high ornamental value, still in cultivation today. The best known today, E. x rubrum, resulted from a cross between E. alpinum and E. grandiflorum, and was mentioned first as E. alpinum var. rubrum in Belgique Horticole in 1854.

Epimedium x warleyense (E. pinnatum subsp. colchicum x alpinum), appeared in the garden of Ellen Willmott, who had an Epimedium collection at Warley Place in UK. It has two noteworthy cv. with orange flowers ‘Ellen Willmott’ and ‘Orange Koenigen’.

E. x cantabrigiense is a cross of E. alpinum x E. pubigerum, with the cv. ‘Black Sea’ maybe the best known. ‘Little Shrimp’ is considered by some a var. of alpinum, although by its look, I would go with Darell Probst and say it’s a E.x cantabrigiense hybrid.

To be continued with the horny-goat weeds…