By Audrey Stallsmith
Flora, always tall, had grown to be very broad too, and short of breath. . .Flora, whom he had left a lily, had become a peony. . .
Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit
According to legend, the peony emanated from the moon. Its glossy seeds supposedly shine through the night too, offering protection from devils, nightmares, and other terrors of darkness. Known as "the blessed rose," the peony also purportedly guarded against illness, injury, and insanity. The superstitious wore beads, carved from the flower's roots, as amulets.
They harvested those roots at night, since woodpeckers were thought to jealously guard the peony by day-and to peck out the eyes of anyone caught interfering with the plant! Some herbalists even considered it unsafe for humans to dig the blessed roots, and advised that dogs should do the harvesting instead.
As Gerard pointed out, "the same fabulous tale hath been set forth of mandrake." He added scornfully that all these superstitions "be most vaine and frivolous: for the root of Peionie, as also the Mandrake, may be removed at any time of the yeare, day or houre whatsoever."
The peony, which originated in China and Tibet, was named for Paeon or Paeos, the legendary Greek physician who treated the wounds of the gods during the Trojan war. In China it is known as Sho-Yo, "most beautiful," and considered an emblem of wealth. Due to the blush suffusing the new leaves, however, the plant stands for "bashfulness" or "shame" in the Language of Flowers.
The plant pictured above is a tree peony (paeonia suffruticosa or "shrubby"). Although the tree types are gorgeous and supposedly boast a wider range of colors than the better-known herbaceous peonies, the "trees" do have their drawbacks. I find them not only much more expensive than herbaceous peonies, but also much more difficult to coax into bloom.
Perhaps because fairies were believed to nestle among the many petals, a peony bloom supposedly bestowed on its recipient the willpower to keep secrets. But the ants that really flock to the buds are not necessary, as some believe, to a peony's opening up!
Single blooms of the flower are considered "male" and the double varieties "female." Those blooms posses what Louise Beebe Wilder describes as a "coarse rose scent." She reports that the double whites and pinks generally have the strongest odor, with single and red varieties having the least.
Peony root was used as a cure for palsy,"the falling evil" (epilepsy), and as a teething aid for infants. John Heinerman also recommends it for jaundice, kidney problems, and allergies. The seeds, "as big as Pease" (Gerard), once served as a popular spice. They also eased childbirth and, steeped in wine, alleviated nightmares.
Although its protective powers were illusory, peony still "shines" as one of the showiest flowers of spring. The only "danger" is that you might plant those roots too deep and thus prohibit blooming. But, just to be on the safe side, keep "an eye out" for woodpeckers!
Paonia suffruticosa image is from Description des Plantes Rares Cultivees a Malmaison et a Navarre by Aime Bonpland, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden