Named after the physician to the gods, Paeon, peony flowers are a genus of blossoms of about 30 species, and are the only genus in the family Paeoniaceae. The majority of the peony genus consists of herbaceous perennials; however, there are at least 10 species that are considered to be woody shrubs. The blossoms are large and fragrant, with bright green, lobed compound leaves. These flowers are best known for their soft pink hues, but they may also be seen in red and white, and hybrid colors of burgundy, yellow and coral. Peonies are one of the most frequently planted garden flowers all throughout North America; however, they are mostly native to Asia, Europe and western regions of the United States. Most peonies grow best in full sun with well drained, well fertilized soil, and may be planted as early as the first few weeks of autumn, thus giving them time to establish themselves in their new environment.
Peony flowers are frequently used as ornamental plants and as the subject of a good deal of art – from ancient Chinese watercolor paintings, to modern day body art. This is not surprising, as peonies have a long history in legends and folklore. The most commonly accepted myth is that of Paeon who, although he later became the physiciann of gods, was initially the student of Asclepius who became jealous of Paeon’s abilities. To save Paeon from the anger of Asclepius, Zeus intervened and turned Paeon into a peony flower. A variation of this myth states that a lovely wood nymph called Paeonia was well loved by the gods, so the jealous goddess Venus transformed her into a delicate, blushing peony flower. Peony flowers also have a large part in folk medicine. The idea of peonies as a sort of medicine began during the Middle Ages, when madmen were covered with peony petals and leaves, as the oils were thought to have a soothing, curative effect. All throughout history, though, all parts of the peony have been thought to do everything from easing the pain of childbirth to curing jaundice. Although these plants have long been used for their wide variety of medicinal uses, people are still urged to take precaution, as these flowers, when taken in large doses, are considered poisonous to consume.
In the Language of Flowers, peonies were said to represent bashfulness or even shame. However, today, peony flowers are considered a more luscious symbol of romance, and are thought to be a good omen for happy, prosperous unions. As a gift, these flowers may be given for a variety of reasons – to wish someone a happy life with their new spouse or to celebrate a 12th wedding anniversary. They may represent a wish for the recipient to receive endless love or endless wealth and esteem.