Peonies are known for their significantly flashy blooms and full foliage. Many gardeners choose to include these perennials in their gardens because they are relatively easy to grow, give off a fine scent and give a look of enchantment. These beautiful flowers have long been a symbol of royalty and have inspired many artists and writers through the ages. Here is a brief history and account of popular varieties and uses.
Peonies have a history of being cultivated for at least 1,500 years in China and 1,200 years in Japan. Two species are native to America, and the rest came from various areas, stretching from Europe to China and Japan through Siberia, the Caucasus region and India. Originally cultivated for the medicinal properties of their roots, their beauty was soon in demand for the gardens and yards of the upper class. Tree peonies were introduced to Japan from China by Buddhists. Some herbaceous peonies even grow on the lower slopes of the Himalayas. Today they are grown nearly everywhere, though their importance in China and Japan may not be rivaled anywhere else.
In China and Japan, thousands of people assemble at peony festivals, such as the Luoyang Peony Festival in China’s Henan Province. The tree peony is China’s national flower. They are often mentioned in poems or painted in traditional Chinese brush paintings on silk or glass, carved in woodcuts and embroidered or woven into silk robes. They symbolize friendship, good luck and feminine beauty. In China, "Hua Wang" means "the king of flowers," though there are many other names for them, with meanings such as "wealthy and honorable" or "charming and beautiful." Peonies were the favorite flower of the famous Empress Wu Zetian, who ruled from the 660s to 690s A.D.
Japanese peony by Truly Free Stock
There are thousands of species and varieties of peonies, from single layer saucer-like flowers to double layer blooms packed with hundreds of petals. They have also won favor because of all the colors possible. They can be any shade of yellow, cream, white, orange, pink, purple, crimson, maroon and just about black. There are no known blue peonies, though there are mythical reports that the emperor of China hid a special blue variety in his private garden in the late 1800s.
Tree peonies grow shrub-like from 3 to 10 feet in height, and herbaceous peonies grow from 1 to 5 feet tall. Most prefer cool dry soil and partial sun. If kept well, they will grow and blossom for a very long time. In the garden of the Twin Pagoda Monastery at Taiyuan Shanxi Province, there are 10 plants growing that are said to be 300 years old.
The herbaceous peony is still used today in traditional Chinese medicine. Their roots have been used to prevent blood clotting for nearly 1,900 years. The roots are to be dug in summer and peeled from bark. They are dried in the sun after soaking in boiling water, then soaked again before slicing. The bitter tasting slices are said to pacify the liver and stop pain while nourishing the blood. Some varieties, such as the Phoenix White and Phoenix Pink, are grown for their bark, which has antispasmodic, analgesic and sedative properties.
There is an Asian myth pertaining to the peony, the peacock and the phoenix. The phoenix is a mythical guardian of the Celestial Empire and is often depicted with peonies in embroideries and paintings. Other versions include peacocks or pheasants among pine trees. It is considered good luck to have one of these paintings hanging, for the painted flowers are more enduring.
Famed gardener Jane Fearnley-Whitiingstall remarks on the longevity of peonies in her book "Peonies." Many people question why one should grow a flower that is only in bloom for a week or two, but she says, "Some peonies do flower for four weeks and longer, and by choosing carefully and planning for a succession of bloom you can have peonies in flower from mid April until the end of July. My own answer is that it is precisely because their season is so short that we love peonies so much."