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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

In the Pink with the Peony

The herbaceous peony dies back to the ground in the winter.
The Smithsonian’s Material Culture Forum this past May had an intriguing and wide-ranging theme: “Home Grown Healing: Smithsonian Collections Relating to Plants and Healing, Wellness, Ceremony, and Ritual.” As a prelude, attendees were invited to the Cullman Library in the National Museum of Natural History to peruse herbals, medicinal botanies, travel narratives, and other natural history books assembled by curator Leslie Overstreet.

As we viewed the illustrated volumes there was talk of how some plants, once known almost exclusively for medicinal uses, are now predominantly thought of as culinary or ornamental, such as rhubarb, rosemary, rose, dogwood, foxglove, Solomon’s seal, carrot, parsley. Then there is king basil, Ocimum basilicum, long prized for its healing properties, used in religious rituals, considered a source of erotic powers, and valued in the kitchen. Pier Andrea Mattioli (1501-1577), a medical doctor and botanist, born in Siena, provides the delightful contemporary observation that basil was found to be growing in every Italian household, often in a pot placed by a window. Today, it still rules as a favorite herb.

A pot in every kitchen: basil for the windowsill. Woodcut from Johann Prüss’ Ortus sanitatis (Strasbourg, not after 21 October 1497).
It was a cool, long spring in the Washington area this year. The peonies were spectacular and lasted a good while in their typically short season, blooming at the time of this Forum in May. The woodcut of this plant in the Cullman Library’s copy of Mattioli’s great herbal, Commentarii in Sex Libros Pedacii Dioscoridis (1565), got me wondering how this popular bloom, beloved for its beauty and fragrance and the go-to flower of the wedding industry (symbol of good fortune and a happy marriage), was once used. A little research and a scan of a selection of the early herbals in the Smithsonian Libraries found that the Paeonia once reigned as the medicinal plant, a cure-all from antiquity. Indeed, the genus name originates in Greek mythology: Paeon was physician to the Olympian gods.

The Cullman Library’s uncolored copy of the commentaries by Mattioli on the ancient Greek herbal of Dioscorides has been digitized by the Biodiversity Heritage Library (link here). The first illustrated edition appeared in 1554, with small woodcuts. It was soon reprinted many times in a variety of languages; there are several of these editions in the Smithsonian Libraries. This massive folio has large images where the artist filled the entire woodblock.
Antiquity is full of legends about gathering medicinal plants. The mandrake while being pulled out of the ground was said to give a piercing scream that caused death to the harvester so an animal was needed for the task. The sacred basil had to be cut by a person who had undergone purification rites. Peonies, too, presented risks. Theophrastus, in the 9th century BC in Enquiry into Plants (Greek: Περὶ φυτῶν ἱστορία, Peri phyton historia) notes: “We learn that he who would obtain peony root was advised to dig it up at night, because, if he did the deed in the day-time, and was observed by a woodpecker, he risked the loss of his eye-sight.” The author, however, ridiculed this belief. The perennially grumpy Mattioli was similarly dismissive of most folklore and superstitions.

I will venture to say that this hand-colored woodcut is the earliest representation of the peony in the Smithsonian Libraries (but may well be proven wrong). Gart der Gesundheit (Garden of Health) [Ulm?, 1487?]. This copy lacks several leaves, including any title and colophon. To identify it further research is needed but the text is certainly based on the 1484 Mainz herbal, printed by Peter Schöffer the Elder. Another version, this one in Latin, is below. The copying of illustrations and the re-use of woodblocks was common practice at this time.

The peony in Ortus sanitatis (Garden of Health), printed in Strasbourg in 1497. The Smithsonian Libraries’ copy has been digitized by the Biodiversity Heritage Library. The all-important roots of the peony are emphasized in this woodcut.  
The genus Paeonia has thirty-three species; with the exception of two from North America, all are native to Eurasia (Japan, China, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Turkey, Asia Minor, and Europe) except for two from the west coast of North America. One, Paeonia officinalis, has a long history in both Eastern and Western medicine, used for infantile epileptic seizure, jaundice, stomach-aches, and kidney and bladder problems. There are records of Paeonia officinalis in medieval monastic gardens, the supply precious and carefully preserved in monastery storerooms called “officina,” hence the name.

Inicipit Tractatus devirtutibus herbarum (Venice, 1499). This herbal is a practical, lively little medical book. Unlike the folios of Gerard’s Herbal and the various editions of Mattioli, it fits easily in one’s hands and, despite having been produced in the infancy of printing when books were expensive, appears to have been intended for ready reference. It shows evidence of this by manuscript markings, including a manicula or “little hand” to emphasize portions of the text. The names of the plants, of those commonly found in apothecaries or obtainable from merchants, are in a larger font. They provide the captions for the illustrations, for easy identification. Although the woodcuts are somewhat stylized, typical of early printed books, there is an attempt at naturalism with the depiction of the peony’s roots, represented in black. 
The red peony, native to southern Europe, arrived in England during the 16th century where it became known as the apothecaries’ peony. John Gerard’s Herball or the Generall Historie of Plants (1597) instructs “the blacke graines (that is the seede) to the number of 15. taken in wine or meade, helpeth the strangling and paines of the matrix or mother, and is a speciall remedie for those that are troubled in the night with the disease called Ephialtes, or the night Mare.” Further, “Syrupe made of the flowers of Peionie helpeth greatly the falling sicknes, likewise the extraction of the rootes doth the same.”

 Many of the woodblocks from a 1590 herbal, published in Frankfurt, were reused for Gerard's Herball. That publication, by Jacobus Theodorus Tabernaemontanus, relied itself on earlier illustrations, including those of Mattioli's. Link here for the Biodiversity Heritage's scan of entire volume in the Peter H. Raven Library of the Missouri Botanical Garden.
John Hill, in his The British herbal (1756), declared that for medicinal purposes the male peony roots were best and warned against fraud (substituting female roots) in the markets. “The best way of giving it is in the powder of the root, fresh dried: twelve grains is a dose, and will do great service in all nervous complaints, headaches, and convulsions.” Along with a range of other skills, Hill was trained as an apothecary and was head of the royal gardens at Kensington Palace.
The plates of Hill's volume are dense with illustrations of plants. The Biodiversity Heritage Library has digitized the Peter H. Raven Library of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s copy.

The allegorical frontispiece of Hill’s British herbal shows the Genius of Health receiving tributes. 
In modern medicine, there are at least 120 drugs derived from plants. Given this history of medicinal uses of the peony, I should not have been surprised that the roots and sometimes the seeds and petals of the herbaceous plant are still used in a long list of treatments, some proven, others unsupported. The peony as a supplement even warrants an entry in WebMD. Properties range from sedative, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anticoagulant, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory. It is used for hypertension, muscle cramps, fevers, female reproductive conditions, liver diseases, and skin care, much as it used to be.

It is fascinating to find what is old is new again and to glean recipes for sustenance and health from rare books. Natural remedies are of course desirable. I like ginger tea or cherry juice myself as a sleep aid and basil pesto is the elixir of life. And it’s fun to think of the peony as a drug along with the flower’s overwhelming popularity in the floral industry, the subject of countless Pinterest and Instagram posts and romantic association with ancient cottages and farmhouses. However, there may be considerable risks and side effects from using peonies for medical purposes, including seizures, hazardous interactions with other medications and the herb may be unsafe if taken during pregnancy. As some of the authors of the early herbals knew, great caution was needed in ascribing medicinal virtues to plants. Their power also includes poisonous qualities, threatening life.

To stay in very good health and spirits ˗ in the pink ˗ consult your health care provider before employing the peony in something other than a bouquet.

The author's gardens and photos
By Julia Blakely, Special Collections Cataloger, Smithsonian Libraries 
Leslie Overstreet and Diane Shaw helped with this post.

The tree peony arrived from China to Europe in 1787. The deciduous shrub, imported by Sir Joseph Banks, botanist and president of the Royal Society, was planted in Kew Gardens.

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