The History of Peonies


Peonies (also spelled paeonies) are the sole genus from Paeoniaceae, with up to 40 species. They originated in western North America, Asia and southern Europe, from the Mediterranean region. They are both woody shrubs as well as herbaceous perennial plants. Their flowers tend to be large and most have sweet scents. They range in color from yellow and red to white.


Peonies existed in China as far back as 1000 B.C. They became popular gardening plants in the seventh century, when Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty reigned. In the following years, specifically during the T'ang Dynasty, peonies gained popularity in imperial gardens. They arrived in Japan in the eighth century, and were made simpler by the Japanese, who produced less complex and lighter heads for them.


Peonies were named after Paeon, who was one of Asclepius' pupils. Asclepius was a Greek god of healing and medicine. Asclepius was known for becoming uncontrollably envious of his student. Zeus, the king of the gods, rescued Paeon from Asclepius' anger by transforming him into an unassuming peony.

Medicinal Use

It is commonly believed that peonies were first used for medicinal purposes, as far back as 2,000 years ago, in both Europe and China. Many different parts of peonies, such as their seeds, roots, flowers and bark, were utilized for their believed medicinal benefits. They have been used for everything from preventing nightmares and relieving coughing to easing stomach pains.


Apart from medicine, peonies have a long history of being used for their artistic value and beauty. Before the 17th century, peonies were particularly popular in the Far East, in both Japan and China. In China, peonies are common with decorative arts, such as screen paintings, porcelain and woodblock. The Japanese used peonies for tapestries and paintings. In both countries, peonies were used as topics for poetry. In the 19th century, peonies were painted by European artists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

North America

Chinese peonies (P. lactiflora) arrived in North America in the 1830s. Since then, peonies have been cultivated for their ornamental benefits rather than for medicinal uses. Peonies became increasingly popular in North America and many new herbaceous peonies have been developed.

Keywords: peonies, history of the peony, paeonia

About this Author

Isabel Prontes is a freelance writer/traveler residing in Manhattan, NY. She has a bachelor's degree from Pace University in New York City, and a professional background in public relations. She has traveled to 5 continents and counting. Her writing has been published on a number of websites, such as,, and Happy Living Magazine.