July 02, 2020
I spent my formative, college years living in Chicago. Having been born and raised in South Texas, I was a tremendous wimp when it came to winter and cold weather. During those years, I lived in a house with an avid gardener, who carefully cultivated her flowering plants to maintain continuous color from May – September. And late in the spring the peonies bloomed. They were the true hallmark of warmer temperatures. Crocuses and tulips often tricked me into thinking it was spring. It is not uncommon for them to bloom only to be covered with ice a few days later, their colorful blooms laughing maniacally, “Ha, ha! Got you! There’s still more snow!” But peonies do not bloom until the freezing precipitation is good and done. I love peonies.
I was particularly excited years later when I was in acupuncture school learning about traditional Chinese herbs to discover that the same plants to produce these floral beauties also make roots that provide therapeutic effects, white peony root and red peony root. At first I assumed the color of the flower dictated which herb was in play, but soon learned peony root is an excellent example of the lesson my professor liked to summarize as, “It’s not what, it’s how.”
Scientific NamePaeonia lactiflora or Paeonia rubraeCommon Name (Western)Peony RootChinese Name (Pin Yin)Chi Shao, Bai ShaoOriginLactiflora comes from Inner Mongolia and Northeast China (the more northern, colder parts), Rubrae comes from Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu (the more southern, warmer parts)
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Also known in the garden world as fragrant Chinese peony, paenia lactiflora is responsible for the familiar garden peonies. Whether the herb in question is white peony root, bai shao, or red peony root, chi shao, is determined by the way in which the root is processed after being harvested. In fact, before the Tang dynasty, no distinction was made between these two herbs. The canonical text Shang Han Lun, simply uses the name Shao Yao.
In modern times, red peony root is simply harvested, dried, and sliced. The unmitigated drying process yields the red tint. Often wild peony is used to make red peony root. By contrast, white peony root often begins with cultivated plant, that is harvested, peeled, boiled and then dried and sliced. The boiling process strips away the color, hense the name white peony root.
If this were a proper academic reference, red peony and white peony would have two separate entries with references to each because the therapeutic effects of the herbs are so different. Red peony root is a cooling herb used to clear heat from the blood, move the blood and stop pain. It is often used in gynecological formulas where symptoms include heat signs such as acne and irritability. White peony by contrast nourishes the blood and is used in cases of pain that come from deficiency. This gives rise to the traditional instruction that loosely translates to, “the white tonifies while the red reduces; the white consolidates while the red invigorates.” It is worth noting, the two herbs are often used in combination because blood deficiency frequently results in poor blood flow and consequential stasis.
Red peony root should be avoided during pregnancy. It should also be used carefully in cases of deficiency, and must be combined with nourishing herbs.
Red peony root is used in the Herbalogic Back in Action family of formulas to promote blood circulation and relieve pain. White peony root is used in Herbalogic Decompress and its related formulas Peacekeeper and Flashback for its nourishing qualities. White peony root’s pain-relieving quality is also leveraged to relieve the sorts of pain that arise from emotional stress like neck tightness. And because it is so nourishing and promotes the production of strong blood cells, white peony root is included in the Peak Power formulations.
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