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Peonies are the quintessential symbol of spring, signaling the entrance of pleasantly chilly weather that soon leads to summer. The large, pastel flowers typically grow on sizeable bushes that come with a fragrant smell.
A favorite of florists everywhere for its ornate beauty, the peony has a long history, rich symbolism and connection to mythology. Let’s take a look.
What Are Peonies Exactly?
The peony is native to China, but it also grows on the European coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. Best known for being massive flowers with petals that can grow up to 10 inches in diameter, peonies come in all colors, except blue.
There are about 25 to 40 different species. However, there are no clear-cut guidelines between the species, so there is still an argument as to the exact number of species. Most suitable for cool climates, peonies need extra potassium for stem strength and disease resistance. It is a perennial plant that can last up to a hundred years when cultivated under the best conditions.
Luoyang, a city in China, is often called the City of Peony. They have a National Peony Garden which has more than a hundred varieties of the flower, and they also host an annual peony festival which is very popular with tourists. The peony is the state flower of Indiana.
Peony – Mythical Origins
There are two popular myths that outline the origin of the peony, both from Greek mythology.
In one of the myths, the peony got its name from Paeon, the physician to the Greek gods. He was the apprentice of Asclepius who is the god of healing and medicine. Paeon is believed to have discovered a root that could help relieve the pain of childbirth. His master, jealous that Paeon would soon eclipse his popularity, vowed to kill him. Zeus turned Paeon into a peony flower to save him from certain death.
The other story is about a nymph called Paeonia, who was so attractive that Apollo, son of Zeus, fell in love with her. This irked Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and love, who became jealous. She turned Paeonia into a flower.
Meaning and Symbolism of the Peony
The peony has a recorded history that dates back hundreds of years, so it is not surprising that its origin and mythology have myriad versions. It also symbolizes different things across different cultures. The most common meanings associated with the peony include:
- A happy marriage
- Fortune and prosperity
These meanings make the peony one of the most symbolic flowers for weddings. As a result, they’re commonly chosen for bridal bouquets and floral decorations at weddings and engagement parties. In addition to this, peonies also symbolize the following in
- In China, the peony symbolizes wealth, honor, and nobility.
- In the West, the peony is given for twelfth wedding anniversaries because it symbolizes a happy relationship, fortune, and honor.
- The peony also represents bashfulness because it was believed that nymphs would often hide their naked forms by hiding into peonies.
When Should I Give Someone Peonies?
The symbolism and beauty of peonies makes them suitable for almost any occasion, and because they come in a wide variety of colors and varieties, there are many options when gifting.
They’re ideal to give for the following occasions:
- To congratulate someone on an achievement, a coming of age occasion, a graduation or similar event.
- To a new mom as a symbol of fortune and prosperity.
- To a romantic partner as a symbol of love. In this case, it’s best to choose red or dark pink peonies.
- To someone getting married, as a wish for a long and happy marriage together.
Superstitions Related to the Peony
The peony has a long and interesting history that comes with legends and myths.
- Some believe that if you have a peony bush full of flowers, you’ll receive good luck. But if the tree withers and the flowers start to fade or change color, you’ll be visited by bad luck or some misfortune.
- In the middle ages, people believed that if anyone was seen by a woodpecker digging up peony roots, the bird would peck their eyes out too.
- In the Victorian age, it was unlucky to dig up a peony. Doing so would bring upon a curse.
- In ancient times, the peony was considered to be of divine origin and was thought to keep bad spirits away. The seeds were even strung as a necklace as protection from evil spirits.
- It is the traditional floral symbol of China where it played an important role two centuries ago. It is lovingly referred to as the ‘Queen of Flowers’ because according to legend, there was a beautiful empress who, on one chilly winter morning, decided to use her magical powers to order all flowers to bloom. Fearful of her wrath, all flowers obeyed except the peony. Angered, the queen told her servants to remove all the peonies and put them in the coldest and most distant places of the empire. The peonies had followed the natural course and not bowed even to power, making them dignified and righteous.
Uses of the Peony
The peony does not only look good on bouquets and flower arrangements, but it also has various other uses and benefits.
The root of the peony, and less commonly the seed and the flower, are used to make medicine. Sometimes called white peony or red peony, the color refers to the processed root and not the flower itself. Peony is used for autoimmune disorders, PCOS or polycystic ovary syndrome, menstrual cramps, healing cracked skin, and other similar conditions.
Similar to other botanical ingredients, peony has substantial antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties which helps protect the skin from oxidative stress induced by UV radiation. It is scientifically proven that skin that is better protected from stressors is less likely to develop sun spots, fine lines, and uneven texture. Although peony benefits all skin types, it is especially ideal for people who want to brighten their complexion and improve firmness.
The seeds of the peony were used to flavor raw meats in medieval kitchens. Sometimes the seeds were eaten raw to stabilize the temperament and warm the taste buds. They were also added in hot wine and ale to supposedly prevent disturbing dreams.
Partially cooked and sweetened petals of the flower are consumed in China as a dessert. The flower’s fresh petals can also be consumed raw as part of salads or as a garnish for lemonade.
Peony Cultural Significance
As previously mentioned, today peonies are still given to couples who celebrate 12 years of being married.
It is also constantly featured on wedding bouquets and table centerpieces for wedding receptions. The Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, a huge fan of the flower, had bouquets that featured peonies in her dazzling wedding to Prince Harry.
To wrap it up
Rich in history, wrapped in myths and legends, and constantly showcased at wedding banquets, the peony is a flower that is well-loved by everyone. It’s wide variety of colors and sizes, and meaningful symbolism, make it a versatile flower, perfect at almost every occasion.