Saturday, June 17, 2006

Peony Most Beautiful

Prairial 29

After having fallen
Its image still stands—
The peony flower

The flower for the 29th day of the French Republican month of Prairial (Meadow) is the Peony. It’s also the flower of June in the Japanese calendar.

The peonies in my neighborhood, which were only buds on June 1st, exploded into bloom during the last few weeks. I distinctly remember the first time I was introduced to peonies. I had been invited into the home of a woman who attended one of my writing workshops. She lived in a little brick Tudor cottage, tucked away under giant evergreen trees in a secret grove north of Ballard. It was my fantasy of the perfect home, a fantasy fueled by reading English novels throughout my childhood. An extravagant garden with flower beds, buzzing bees, brick paths, a sundial and lots of herbs. Inside uniquely-shaped rooms, each angled to look out on the garden through leaded windows, lots of books and art, beautiful old Mission furniture, gleaming with wax, and everywhere vases of peonies that filled the room with their spicy, clove and pepper scent. I fell totally in love with the flowers.

Years later I bought a peony for my garden plot but have not yet been a successful peony raiser. At first I got no buds and since I suspected this was because I had buried the roots too deep, I dug up the plant and replanted it. The following year I got one flower, the next, three. Then I moved it and now the buds have all soured, turned brown and I face the prospect of no peony flowers in my house this year (unless I buy them at the store or the farmer’s market—always an option).

According to the sites I’ve consulted as I write this article, my peony probably has botrytis, a fungal disease. I assume this is the same botrytis that is prized in wine making. I just went to a reisling tasting at my local Whole Foods which culminated in the sampling of a sweet, golden Eiswein made from reisling grapes that have succumbed to botrytis. (Apparently there is a good form and a bad form: the good form is called “noble rot,” the bad kind, “grey rot.”) It may also be mad at me for transplanting it—peonies hate being moved. They are long-lived plants—they can live as long as 100 years.

All peonies are from the family Ranunculaceae, cousins to the buttercup, or St. Anthony’s turnip, I featured a few days ago. There are three kinds of peonies: the European peony (paeonia officinalis); the Chinese peony (paeonia lactiflora) and the tree peony (paeonia suffruticosa).

The Chinese peony has been a prized garden flower in China since the 10th century. It is called “sho yu, meaning “most beautiful” and represents prosperity. A legend says it was created by the moon goddess to reflect the moon’s beams during the night. A similar belief about the peony lighting up the night comes from a Greek writer Aelianus (3rd century) who writes of one kind of peony that grows by the sea, opens at Summer solstice and shines like fire, while another kind, hidden away among the herbs during the day, at night shines like a star.

The peony that is best known in Europe is paeonia officinalis and that second part of the Latin name is always a clue that a plant was considered to have medicinal qualities. Pliny said that peonies are the “oldest of plants, and are an important medicine that cures twenty ills.” Peony seeds, strung in a garland and worn around the neck, were said to protect children. They were also chewed to ward off nightmares. Peony root was given to women in childbirth and peony leaves were used to cure lunatics.

Yet Jeanne Rose warns that it’s poisonous and Mrs. Grieve doesn’t include it in her herbal. And peony had a reputation for being dangerous. Aelianus also recommended typing a dog to the stalk of the plant so he can pull it up for you, thus avoiding the danger involved in picking it, which could include having your eyes pecked out by woodpeckers. Apparently one way to avoid these dangers was to harvest peony in the middle of the night. According to Martin some peony plants actually glow in the dark but I couldn’t find any confirmation of this on the web.

Michael Moore says the Western Peony (paeonia californica) has the same effects as the Asian and European peonies. He makes a tincture of the roots and uses it to ease cramping, spasmodic coughing and other conditions which cause the body to twitch and shakes. He also recommends it as a tonic for those under emotional or intellectual stress.

Martin says that the only country ever named after a flower was Paeonia located in what is now northern Greece. It was conquered during the Persian Wars.

In the language of flowers, peony means a happy marriage and virility in Japan, prosperity in China, to the French hardiness or heaviness, for the British bashful shame and in an American language of the flowers: anger or a frown.

Martin, Laura, Garden Flower Folklore, Globe Pequot Press 1987
Moore, Michael, Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, Red Crane Books 1993
Rose, Jeanne, Herbs & Things, Grosset and Dunlap 1972
Seaton, Beverly, The Language of Flowers, University Press of Virginia 1995

Web Sites:
Growing Peonies:
Also lots of information, including a good history at
And you can find everything you ever wanted to know about peonies at
Good, Walter, “Peony Portraits,”

Poeny Folklore:
Vandaveer, Chelsie, “What Does Peony Have to Do with Poetry?”
Vandaveer, Chelsie, “Why Were Peonies Considered Dangerous?”

Illustration came from this blog, the Human Flower Project, by Julie Ardery, which I just discovered:

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