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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Peony (Red and White)

Spring is here and the peony will be making its annual American appearance. We have come to associate the peony flower with decoration for Memorial Day in the United States. But did you know that the peony flower is also a symbol of wealth in China?

The flower of Paeonia lactiflora Pall. (Family Paeoniaceae) has been a part of her classic literature since ancient times. Medicinally, the part used is the root and it is further distinguished as Red peony root (dried root of the wild plant, synonym: Shaoyao or Chishao) and White peony root (cured root of cultivated plant with bark removed, synonym: baishao). Both share some properties and each have some unique properties. Red peony root is slightly cold, analgesic, antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, activates blood, removes blood stasis, and is a detoxicant. White peony root is slightly cold, analgesic, antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, nourishes blood, regulates menstruation, and is a general tonic.

The most common traditional uses for red peony root are tightness in chest, abdominal pain, "hot" and "toxic" conditions. For white peony root, the most common traditional uses are for tightness in chest, abdominal pain, headache, dizziness, stiff and painful joints, irregular menses, pale complexion due to blood deficiency, spontaneous perspiration, night sweat.

There doesn't appear to be too much difference between red peony root and white peony root, except that the latter is more commonly associated with use in tonics. The famous Chinese sage Confucius (who lived around 500 BC) is said to have favored a sauce made with white peony root. The ancient practice of using peony root as an ingredient in foods and in diet therapy has recently been revived in China. Now you can find various types of health foods and drinks, inclulding fruit juices, soft drinks (e.g., Shaolin Cola and West Lake Cola), and wines made with extracts of white peony root.

Extracts of both red and white peony roots are used in skin care cosmetics in China for their antimicrobial, antiinflammatory and astringent properties, especially in acne creams. This use seems to have traditional precedence because its external use to treat carbuncles was recorded in the Wu Shi Er Bing Fang (Prescriptions for Fifty-two Diseases) written around 1066 to 771 B.C. This work (a silk scroll copy) was uncovered in 1973 during the excavation of the Ma Wang Dui tomb (dated 168 B.C.) at Changsha, Hunan. In the same tomb, numerous herbs were found clutched in the hand of a skeleton; they included magnolia flower bud, sour jujube kernel, Chinese cinnamon, ginger, and Sichuan peppercorn.

Since the mid 1970s, Chinese scientists have found red and white peony roots to have various biological activities, including antimicrobial, antiinflammatory, immunomodulating, analgesic, sedative, antispasmodic, antifatigue, antimutagenic, prolonging survival, improving memory, antitumor, etc., in humans and /or experimental animals. They have also discovered that many of these activities are due to the monoterpene glycosides (especially paeoniflorin) present in these herbs. Although these modern findings seem to provide scientific support to some of peony root's traditional properties and uses, they only represent a fraction of the total properties and uses of these two herbs. In addition, all above effects were results of isolated studies as typical of scientific investigations on herbs. They don't prove anything, but one could interpret these results to one's advantage.

Dr. Albert Leung’s book, Better Health with (mostly) Chinese Herbs and Food discusses the use of 60 different herbs as healing foods, including red and white Peony on pages 69-70. For more information about Dr. Leung and his writings, visit www.earthpower.com.

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