Mother’s Day and Memorial Day showcase one of May’s spectacular floral beauties – the peony. This plush, lush flower is certainly not a “peon” or servant plant in the flower world. Instead, it merits paeans or hymns of praise for its beauty and fragrance.
It takes its name from Paeon, the Greek physician to the gods. Although it would seem that the all-powerful gods should never require a doctor’s services, nonetheless, it was commonly believed in the circles of the gods that Paeon possessed a magical root that could cure many ills.
Paeon was a student of Asclepsius, the god of medicine and healing. When Asclepsius heard that Paeon possessed a more potent medicine than he did, he flew into a jealous rage and threatened to kill his upstart student. Zeus, the supreme god, and often the mediator in such godly squabbles and rivalries, stepped in and resolved the situation by changing Paeon into the flower we know today as the peony.
From this myth, the Romans claim the peony was the first herb to be used in medicine with powers to cure over 20 illnesses. It is often known as the blessed herb because of the many miraculous powers attributed to it. Its magical powers allegedly protect against demons, witches, storms, and the evil eye. Its special powers also protect the harvest and shepherds and their flocks. Some specimens seem to glow in the dark, adding to the superstitions surrounding the plant.
Apollo, the god of music, poetry, prophecy, and medicine figures prominently in several myths and stories about the peony. The Greeks believed that Apollo frequently disguised himself as Paeon, and they often sang songs of thanksgiving and praise to him. These songs were known as paeans, which have the same origin as the flower’s name.
One myth concerns the brother-sister teasing and taunting that is common not only with humans, but also with gods and goddesses. Diana, Apollo‘s sister and goddess of the moon, was known as the huntress because of her renowned abilities with the bow and arrow. She fell in love with the handsome youth, Orion, the son of Neptune, god of the sea. This greatly displeased Apollo.
A special gift from his father allowed Orion to walk through the deepest waters with his head always above water. One day, Apollo noticed Orion walking in the deep seas far in the distance. Pointing out what seemed to be only a speck on the horizon, he dared Diana to try to hit it with one of her arrows. With only a quick glance at the speck, she aimed her arrow. Her shot was accurate and hit the long-distance target.
When Orion's body washed ashore, Diana realized it was her arrow that had killed him. As she wept in grief at his side, beautiful peonies sprang up where her warm tears touched the ground. To honor her love for Orion, Diana placed him among the stars, forever to be known as the hunter of the night.
The boldness of its beautiful blossoms and its heavy fragrance that can scent an entire room with only one blossom belie its meaning of “bashfulness” in the Victorian language of flowers. Large,showy flowers in colors of pink, white, and shades of red often measure four to six inches in diameter. The foliage is full and creates an attractive shrub for the summer months after the blooming cycle.
The peony has been grown, cultivated, and hybridized in China for over 2000 years. The Chinese name for peony means beautiful, and it is their floral symbol of prosperity.
Like many plants, the peony is a world traveler. It reached England from China about 1200, probably brought in by Roman legions. It was first valued for its medicinal uses, but soon its beauty and fragrance became the reasons for its popularity. From England, the peony traveled to America with early colonists to brighten their new homes and to recall fond memories of their old homes. Peonies can live and bloom for more than 100 years if undisturbed. Along with wild roses and irises, they are often the only remnants of old family farms and homesteads.