Epimedium alpinum

The Virtues

In the seventeenth century, Epimedium alpinum appears to have had few medicinal uses, and its presence in the Botanic Garden is more likely to be connected to its novelty in the country.

In the mid-1600s, Epimedium alpinum’s only semi-medicinal use was in a cosmetic procedure: the apothecary John Parkinson wrote that the plant could be used to “keepe womens breasts, from growing over great”. However, it may have been grown because contemporary doctors would have needed to learn of its dangers. Its common name, Barrenwort, stems from an understanding that it could reduce fertility if ingested. Parkinson tells of a report “that the roote would make women barren, that tooke it inwardly, as also the leaves made into powther and taken in wine for sometime”. Similarly, the herbalist John Gerard wrote that “being drunke it is an enemie to conception”.

The species’ novelty is quite likely to have played a role in its cultivation in the Botanic Garden in 1648. Gerard was one of the first people in the country to have grown Epimedium (which originates from Southern Europe, and is not native to the British Isles) after he was sent seeds from Jean Robin’s Parisian garden. The main reason for the Oxford Garden growing Epimedium, therefore, may have been more curiosity regarding this newly-arrived species, described by Gerard as “rare and strange”, rather than any special knowledge of its medicinal properties.

Epimedium illustration from Gerard's Herbal

The Names: Epimedium all the way

The Botanic Garden’s catalogues from 1648 and 1658 both use the name ‘Epimedium’ for the species, with the second name ‘alpinum’ being added to the plant’s name several years later. Epimedium alpinum has been used as the accepted scientific name for the plant ever since. Its common name of barrenwort comes from its perceived ability to render those who drink its extracts infertile, but its Latin name is less easy to unravel. It is thought to come from its resemblance to species grown in the Kingdom of the Medes (now Iran), with Epi meaning upon and Media referring to the kingdom.