In a bioassay-guided drug screening for anti-osteoporosis activity, eight flavonol glycosides were isolated from Epimedium koreanum Nakai, which is traditionally widely used in China for the treatment of impotence and osteoporosis. The effects of total flavonoids and flavonol glycosides on the proliferation and differentiation of rat calvarial osteoblast-like cells were evaluated by the MTT method and measuring the activity of alkaline phosphatase (ALP activity). Total flavonoids (1.2 x10(-2) to 6.0 x10(-7) mg/ml) and flavonol glycosides (2.0 x10(-5) to 1.0 x10(-9) mol/l) exhibited a strong inhibition on the proliferation of primary osteoblasts at most concentrations. However, the total flavonoids and icariin significantly promoted the differentiation of primary osteoblasts. The results suggested that flavonoids from E. koreanum Nakai may improve the development of osteoblasts by promoting the ALP activity; and icariin might be one of the active constituents facilitating the differentiation of osteoblasts.