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!!!

But who am I to say that you cannot chop a few leaves from your Epimedium garden in the traditional way if in need, helping both the CONSERVATION of plant species and of the humanity – THROUGH CULTIVATION.

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. Visit the Chinese Epimediums gallery and you’ll understand what I mean!

The best is yet to come – Epimedium foliage

Most Epimediums are just starting to flower, but a few of the varieties grown in the polyhouses rushed by the warm weather have already ended their floral display. What I love about Epimediums is that they are not only great flowering perennial plants, with flowers in many shapes and colours, but they are also wonderful foliage plants. In early spring new emerging foliage can be purple, and often towards the end of flowering or after it, most species/varieties become even more attractive, with the foliage flushed in shades of purple, bronze or with darker coloured margins around the leaflets. The Chinese species and hybrids are usually having the foliage mottled with purple or burgundy splashes throughout the summer. Do I need to mention that in same cases the foliage changes colours again for the fall display?

Epimedium ‘Beni-Yushima’

This spring, one dainty Japanese variety impressed me and I had to add it to my mini Epimedium collection: Epimedium ‘Beni-Yushima’. It is a low-growing variety with rosy-red flowers; the new leaves are deep red and the older ones have reddish margins. How could I have resisted to its charming foliage? I think it’s going to be a good companion for Podophyllum pleianthum, Glaucidium palmatumand Disporum brachystemon.

Epimedium ‘Beni-Yushima’

Another exquisite fairy-wing, Epimedium sempervirens ‘Cherry Hearts’ caught my attention on Saturday. You can see why! The foliage, which emerges cherry red, just turned green leaving only a cherry edge, which persists for the rest of the season.

Epimedium sempervirens ‘Cherry Hearts’

Even when the flowering time has gone, it doesn’t matter for the Epimediums, the best is still yet to come!

 A few other Epimediums with gorgeous foliage (from many others):