The peony (Paeonia lactiflora) produces blossoms in colors of pink, red, yellow, peach and white. Flowers measure a full 8 inches across, and most varieties offer a sweet fragrance. A long living herbaceous perennial, the peony produces abundant foliage that attains 3 feet in height. Each winter the plant dies back to the ground and reemerges in the spring. Cultivation of the peony began across the world over 2,000 years ago. The plant played an important part in the pharmaceutical trade, where it was valued as a cure for numerous illnesses.
The "Shaoyao" of the Far East
In the Far East the peony was referred to as the "Shaoyao" (queen of flowers). The plant is written about as early as the 8th century B.C. in various literature sources, according to the University of Arkansas. The plant was not in private cultivation but harvested from the wild during that era.
The Tang Dynasty lasted from A.D. 618 to 906, and during that time period, the peony quickly became coveted as a beloved garden plant for the wealthy. The Zhu family resided in the city of Yangzhou, China. The family is rumored to have cultivated over 60,000 peonies in their lavish gardens.
The Greeks gave the modern-day peony its name. Paeonia was a Greek physician who cared for the gods of Olympus, according to Homer. The peony was widely used in the Greek medicinal practices in the legend and was named after the physician.
The Romans are credited with introducing the peony to Europe and England. It quickly became a garden favorite for its beauty but also for the belief that it possessed numerous medicinal uses. It was commonly used to treat the pain of childbirth, for ongoing headaches and also for toothaches. The superstitious believed that the plants offered protection against evil spirits and would place them along walkways and entrance ways.
America and the Peony
The peony was first introduced into America in the late 19th century, where it quickly became a popular garden plant for its beauty and ease of growing. In 1903 the American Peony Society was formed to draw together peony enthusiasts from around the United States. The organization strives to improve the plant's cultivation and also find more ways to improve the plant.