F.C. Stern A Study of the Genus Paeonia

chapter IV


part 1 - 1700

370 b.c. THEOPHRASTUS, who was a friend and disciple of Plato and Aristotle, mentions the paeony in his books on the Enquiry into Plants. He calls the plant " the paeony which some call glykyside," and goes on to say how it should be dug up at night, for " if dug up in day-time and a woodpecker observes him he risks the loss of his eyesight." Theophrastus died about 285 b.c.

In the first century a.d. both Dioscorides, the Greek herbalist, and Pliny the Elder mention the paeony in their writings. Dioscorides in De materia medico, libri quinque describes " the Paeony or Glycyside which has many names " ; he then describes two species—" the male has leaves like the Royal nut tree. The female has its leaves divided like the gum tree . . . the root of the male is about a finger's thickness and a span in length. It is astringent to the taste and white. The root of the female has seven or eight acorn-shaped offshoots like the Asphodel. It grows on very high mountains and cliffs." This is the first mention of the male and female paeonies— these might be Paeonia mascula and Paeonia officinalis.

Pliny in Naturalis Historia also gives the name of Glycyside as the synonym of the paeony, saying there are two species, describing the roots of each kind in the same way as Dioscorides. He, in prophetic utterance, says, " there is a further difficulty in that the flower has different names in different places." He also repeats the same story of the woodpecker as Theophrastus.

1481 The next reference to paeonies is in one of the first herbals ever printed, known as the Herbarium of Apuleius Platonicus. Nothing about the author is known and his herbal, which was printed in Rome, is mainly derived from the works of Dioscorides and Pliny.

1485-1491 The first herbals printed in Germany and known under several names, Gart der Gesundtheit and Ortus Sanitatis, have a crude figure evidently meant for a paeony and the text contains nothing but quotations from Dioscorides.

1533 A herbal, Rosslin or Rhodion's Kreutterbuch, printed about this date by the publisher, Christian Egenolph, of Frankfort-on-Main, has a figure of a paeony, apparently P.mascula, but no text; the same figure appears in a later edition, edited by Egenolph's son-in-law, Adam Lonitzer, published about 1578. In another edition by Lonitzer, or Lonicerus as he is also called, it is said that the true Paeonia mascula is unknown in Germany while P.foemina is found everywhere in gardens.

In the first half of the sixteenth century three famous German herbals were published, those of Otto Brunfels, whose family came from Braunfels near Mainz ; Hieronymus Bock or Tragus and Leonhart Fuchs of Wemding in Bavaria.

1530 Brunfels mentions paeonies in his Herbarum Vivae Eicones, quoting from Dioscorides and Pliny, but appears to have written nothing from his own observation. Bock in his herbal, New Kreutter Buck, seems to have observed for himself the plants he deals with but says nothing about their native country. [end page 118]

1542 Leonhart Fuchs mentions paeonies in his herbal De historia stirpium on the same lines as the previous authors ; there is, however, a fine original drawing of a paeony planted in a garden in Germany which may be taken to represent Linnaeus's officinalis. This is reproduced on this page. He compares the two paeonies " mascula " and " foemina " in the same way as Dioscorides. In his preface he has a charming paragraph: " But there is no reason why I should dilate at greater length upon the pleasantness and delight of acquiring knowledge of plants sibce there is no one who does not know that there is nothing in this life pleasanter and more delightful than to wander over woods, mountains, plains, garlanded and adorned with flowerets and plants of various sorts, and most elegant to boot, and to gaze intently upon them. But it increases that pleasure and delight not a little if there be added an acquaintance with the virtues and powers of these same [end page 119] plants." This translation is taken from Dr. Agnes Arber's delightful book on Herbals in which an account of the lives of these botanists of the Middle Ages is given.

1511 William Turner, " the Father of English Botany," published his New Herball in London. In the second part of his Herball, published in 1562, he refers to paeonies with practically an exact copy of Dioscorides in his description of the different parts. He goes on, " the female is common throughout all England and in some parts of Brabant as in Peter Coddenberges garden in Antwerp, the male groweth also. But I could never see it in high Germany. The fairest I ever saw was in Newberri in a rich clothier's garden." Then he describes the different ailments the parts of the paeony are said to cure, following the same lines as Dioscorides.

1553 Thus, of the eleven European species of Paeonia now known, only two had been distinguished down to the mid-sixteenth century, namely P.officinalis as P.foemina and P.mascula. Both have purplish-red flowers. To a French naturalist, Pierre Belon (1517-64) of Le Mans, is due the credit of bringing to notice a third, the white-flowered paeony of Crete, now called P.Clusii. Belon, who was a very keen and industrious observer, travelled in the Near East between 1546 and 1549. In his Observations de plusieurs Singularites et Chases memorables, trouvees en Grece, Asie, Judee, Egypte, Arabie, etc., published at Paris in 1553, Belon recorded that this paeony in two sorts grew in valleys near Mount Ida, had a white flower and was called Psiphedile by the Cretan peasants.

1554 Rembert Dodoens, one of the first Belgian botanists, wrote a herbal, Cruydeboeck, which was translated by Clusius from Flemish into French and published under the name of Histoire de Plantes in 1557. He describes the male and female paeonies, giving a description of the leaves of each from which one can recognise P.mascula and P.officinalis. His figure is the same as Fuch's.

In the edition of 1578 there are three plates of paeonies. In the English edition of 1578, A Nieuve Herball, translated by Henry Lyte, the third plate is of a paeony with leaves and flowers smaller and the stalk shorter, " which some call the Maiden or Virgine Peonie, although it beareth red flowers." He says all these paeonies are found in the gardens of this country, that the paeony took " the name first of that good old man Paeon, a very ancient Physition who first taught the knowledge of this Hearbe."

1561 Valerius Cordus, who was a German botanist of high attainments, lived from 1515 to 1544. He wrote about the plants as he had seen them on his travels and so his information is original and not copied from other authors. He describes Paeonia foemina in much detail. This account was edited by the Swiss botanist Konrad Gesner and published in 1561. This book also contains a work probably by Gesner, Horti Germaniae, with notes on three paeonies ; "P.foemina grows in many of our gardens where it grows vigorously, and if the root is dug up and a small piece left behind, it grows again. I hear that it grows wild on tops of the mountains about Glarus (Glarona), from which the river Serf (Serva fluvius) rises ; a double-flowered form of it is found but is very rare. Paeonia mas folio nucis is found more rarely in gardens. I do not believe it grows wild in Germany ; both this and the other are found, I hear, on the mountain called Generoso, near Lugano, which town is in Switzerland, not far from Lake Como. No figure of this (paeony) has been given so far although Dodoens had it in cultivation. Paeonia minor C., this was sent me by him not long ago with certain one of others." C. probably refers to Peter Coddenberg, a pharmacist of Antwerp.[end page 120]

1565 The great commentary on Dioscorides of the Italian botanist, Pierandrea Mattioli, was first published in 1544 and there are many editions. The most important from our point of view is the Venetian edition of 1565 entitled Commentarii in Sex Libros, in which there are two magnificent drawings, one of P.foemina and one of P.mascula ; the latter is probably the first drawing made of this paeony and first appeared in the editions of 1562 and 1563. These two woodcuts reproduced on pages 121 and 122. Mattioli says P.foemina is a common plant in Italy while P.mascula is found in few places [end page 121].

1576 About this time the three great botanists, Rembert Dodoens, Charles de l'Ecluse, usually known as Clusius, and Mathias de l'Obel, or Lobelius, were in correspondence. Dodoens has already been mentioned. Lobelius mentions several paeonies in his Plantarum seu stirpium historia and also several paeonies in his Icones. He has plates of the plants known at that time, including illustrations of the seeds and roots—P.femina, which comes from the mountains near Geneva, then P.mas, without mentioning from where it comes, and P.promiscua neutra, the double paeony. It is interesting that here is the first mention of the Montpellier plant " P.pumila foemina," which might be P.humilis or the variety villosa. Lobel is quoted by Linnaeus. [end page 122]

1583 Andrea Cesalpino, or Caesalpinus, in De Plantis gives a description of Paeonia " mas " which he says grows in the mountains.

1587 Jacques Dalechamps in his Historia has five plates of paeonies, all reproduced from former authors, which are of no particular interest.

1597 In this year the well-known herbal by John Gerard was published. There are several plates of paeonies which appear to be taken from those published in Lobel's Historia.

1576-1601 The first important work on paeonies was written by Charles de L'Ecluse, or Clusius. He was born near Arras and lived from 1526 to 1609. His first work was Rariorum aliquot Stirpium per Hispanias observatarum Historia, which was written after a journey to Spain and published in 1576. Then after living in Vienna he published, in 1583, his discoveries of plants in the mountains of Austria and Hungary and wrote about the plants that came to Vienna from Constantinople. In this work, Rariorum aliquot Stirpium, per Pannoniam, Austriam et vicinas . . . Historia, is the first mention of P.Byzantina which has now been identified with P.peregrina. After leaving Vienna he lived at Leyden, where he held a professorship until his death in 1609. He was famous in the Netherlands as the founder of the bulb industry there and was called " Le pere de tous les beaux Jardins de ce pays." Clusius was one of the first botanists to give descriptions of the plants, emphasizing the importance of the plants themselves rather than their medical properties.

1601 His descriptions of paeonies are contained in his main book, Rariorum Plantarum historia, published in 1601. More paeonies are described here than in any previous book. He first gives a description of P.Byzantina (P.peregrina), then describes another paeony raised from seed from Spain, which is probably P.humilis. Then several unnamed paeonies are described, including two double-flowered ones. He mentions, under the name cretica, the white paeony from the Island of Crete, found in the valleys amid the high mountains, which was brought to his notice by Honorius Bellus in 1593. This is the second mention of the beautiful Cretan paeony now named P.Clusii. This book is quoted by Linnaeus.

1612 In 1612 and 1613 some of the first copper-plate illustrations of plants were published. Paeonies appeared in Florilegium Novum, by Johann de Bry, and also in Hortus Eystettensis, by Basil Besler, a huge volume with very large and fine illustrations. It has several illustrations of P.mascula and one excellent plate of P.peregrina under the name of P.Byzantina.

1623 The Swiss botanist, Caspard Bauhin, published in 1623 his important Pinax, that is " register." The naming of plants had reached by this time much confusion so Bauhin endeavoured to straighten out the tangle of names by producing a register of synonyms. He enumerates ten paeony species followed by four double-flowered forms ; these plants are given new names which are more a short description than a name, and their synonyms are recorded ; for instance the Spanish paeony of Clusius becomes P.tennis laciniata subtus pubescens flore purpureo, and the Cretan paeony of Clusius becomes P.folio subtus incano flore albo vel pallido. The work is useful and important as Bauhin has got together the different names of paeonies given by previous authors and put them together in proper order under the different species.

Linnaeus in his Critica Botanica (1737) writes : " When confusion has arisen in every age from diversity of names let Bauhin tell who spent forty years in trying to understand the names in use. [end page 123]

1629 John Parkinson (1567-1650) published his herbal Paradisi in Sole Paradisus terrestris in this year. Parkinson had a garden in Long Acre and held the title of herbalist to Charles I. His work is more a gardening than a scientific book. In it he mentions five paeonies. The first is obviously P.peregrina, the red paeony of Constantinople, and the second is probably P.officinalis. Paeonies No. 3 and 5 are double-flowered garden forms ; he says of the double red form, " This double Peonie as well as the former single is so frequent in every garden of note through every country that it is almost labour in vain to describe it." The fourth paeony he describes may be P.arietina. This herbal is particularly interesting as it shows the paeonies that were grown in gardens in 1629.

1676 (1686?) Pierre Magnol mentions in his Botanicum Monspeliense, P.communis vel foemina as being found (1686 .) woods not far from Mt. Lupi, i.e. Pie St. Loup, about 12 miles north of Montpellier.

1696 The Franciscan monk, Francesco Cupani, in his Hortus Catholicus seu . . . Principis Catholicae, mentions four paeonies as being grown in the botanic garden established at Misilmeri, near Palermo, by the Prince of Cattolica, Giuseppe de Bosco. One of them, Poeonia hyemalis, pumila, Rosae rubrae monoflore, was illustrated later in his posthumous Panphyton Siculum (1713), of which less than twenty copies are known, and proves to be P.Russi. The figure reproduced on this page is the earliest record of this species.

1699 and 1715 Robert Morison in his Plantarum Historiae Oxoniensis has a compilation of seventeen different and paeonies, divided into single-flowered forms and double-flowered forms growing in the Botanical Garden at Oxford. There are nine rather poor drawings. The names mostly follow Bauhin and Clusius. Morison suggests that the paeony with hairy leaves and pink flowers becoming white [end page 124] with age, growing in the Oxford Garden, might be the Cretan paeony of Clusius and also the plant with the composite name of Bauhin. This note caused the wrong plant to be depicted as Paeonia cretica in the Botanical Register, 1824.