Epimedium brevicornum, or Horny Goat Weed, is a perennial plant for the shade, belonging to a group of species found in Asia, and has small nodding white and yellow flowers above heart-shaped green leaves. In addition to being an ornamental plant (although you may have trouble finding it for that purpose), it is also the source of a Chinese herbal extract traditionally used medicinally, most notably as an aphrodisiac.
In the Garden
Epimedium brevicornum is not often found in gardens; other epimediums, especially the hybrids, are easier to come by and have showier flowers, although the plant is not impossible to find. Through the work of Darrell Probst, hybridizer of epimediums and collector of Asian species, this epimedium is now more available, but you have to know where to look (see Resources). It is listed as 'brevicornu' in catalogs, grows 15 inches tall and does well where other epimediums thrive. A shady location is best and soil should be fertile and well-drained. It can be grown in USDA growing zones 4-8 and can tolerate fairly cold climates but not extreme heat.
Epimediums make excellent groundcovers, although none hug the ground and most are slow-growing. Evergreen and semi-evergreen varieties exist, as well as those that lose their leaves. Epimedium brevicornum belongs to the last group. Flowers come out in spring, while the new leaves are unfurling, so be sure to remove the old ones so you don't miss the show. Epimediums come from Asia and the Mediterranean, and European varieties exist as well. No hard numbers exist as to how many species there are worldwide. Darrell Probst, in an online interview with "Fine Gardening" magazine about his collecting in China, says he feels there may be many more to be discovered.
Medicinal History and Use
According to Lisa Frick in the Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, the Chinese have been using medicinal epimedium for centuries and call the plant Yin Yang Huo, translated as "licentious goat plant." True to its Chinese name, epimedium brevicornum, along with a few other varieties, has a well-known reputation as an aphrodisiac, but is also taken to ease joint inflammation and problems with menopause, Information from Herbal Extracts Plus, an online company, cites that current research is beginning to support these claims. The extract of horny goat weed is made from epimedium leaves and stems. Widely available, it comes in a powder, tablets and capsules and may be made into a tea.
Science Weighs In
Information from Herbal Extracts Plus also mentions several studies done in the U.S. and China researching the potential sexual benefits of using epimedium and results show that there is an effect. One study at the University of Milan found that epimedium may work similarly to prescription drugs used to treat erectile dysfunction. A chemical called icariin, found in epimedium, is thought to increase sexual desire. Epimedium opens up blood vessels and causes nerve endings to be more sensitive and shows promise as a treatment for heart disease and asthma. In clinical trials conducted by pharmacist Yu-Ping Shu, Ph.D., epimedium was shown to be effective in treating bronchitis. Still, check with your doctor before using epimedium as a medical treatment for any of the above conditions, or any other condition.
Horny Goat Weed does have potential side effects and should be used carefully as too much can cause dizziness, vomiting and nosebleed, according to Lisa Frick. Again, always consult with your doctor first, especially important if you have a preexisting medical condition and if you're taking prescription medication. The FDA has not evaluated epimedium's safety or any other claims discussed here. Always take these precautions into consideration if you plan to grow epimedium brevicornum for its medicinal uses; if you get the go-ahead from your doctor, it may be easiest and safest to buy epimedium from a reputable herb supplier rather than growing it yourself.
Epimedium brevicornum is available through Darrell Probst's Garden Vision nursery.
Naylor Creek nursery offers a lengthy list of epimediums, many propagated by Probst, including this variety. Be prepared for sticker shock, however; because epimediums are slow-growing and many are so rare, they can be expensive.
Epimedium supplements are easily available online.