6 Fascinating Things You Should Know About Peony Flowers

Bold, colorful, and fragrant, these blooms are popular around the world, and for good reasons.

You've probably caught the aroma of peonies in bloom as you've walked through your neighborhood, and their stunning flowers are hard to miss. Individual peony blooms can reach up to 10 inches wide, depending on the variety, and they come in every color except blue. In addition to their large, layered flowers and sweet fragrance, peonies have incredible staying power (they can live for over 100 years). They make excellent cut flowers that last a week or more in a vase. It's possible to refrigerate them to keep the buds for up to three months, then enjoy them long after their natural blooming season. No wonder peonies are so beloved—but there's much more to them than you might realize.

pink karl rosenfield peony
Karla Conrad

1. The Peony Has Centuries of History

Peonies are native to Asia, Europe, and Western North America. Early in Chinese history, the peony was considered the national flower (although it's now officially the plum blossom). The Tang Dynasty of China began breeding peonies in the imperial courts in the 7th century BCE. Their popularity spread to Japan in the early 11th century and France and England in the 18th century. Then, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they began gaining popularity in the U.S. The peony even became the state flower of Indiana in 1957, replacing the zinnia for the honor.

2. There's a Huge Variety of Peonies

There are more than 6,500 varieties of peonies, with new ones being introduced all the time. The American Peony Society keeps track of them, and each year, it awards its Gold Medal to an outstanding variety. They all fit into three main categories: tree, herbaceous, and itoh (a cross between the other two). Most types are happiest in full sun, but some tree peonies do best in part shade. Peonies usually bloom from late spring to early summer, with early, midseason, and late blooming varieties that allow you to extend the flower show.

3. Their Name is Rooted in Greek Mythology

The peony is named after Paeon (also spelled Paean), who was a student of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing. One version of the story goes that Paeon, known as the healer of the gods, used a peony to treat a wound for Zeus. When Asclepius became murderously jealous of his pupil, Zeus saved Paeon by turning him into a peony flower.

4. Peonies Have Medicinal Properties

Studies have shown that peony plants have immune-system and mood-boosting properties, and can be used to effectively treat inflammation, blood clots, and general pain. In fact, the roots and seeds of peonies have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries to treat headaches, asthma, convulsions, liver disease, and several more ailments. Peonies also have been used in European herbal medicine as a remedy for bladder and kidney problems.

Peonies can cause gastrointestinal upset for both people and animals, such as cats and dogs if consumed in large amounts.

5. Peony Flowers Have Symbolism

Aside from their fragrance and wide availability as cut flowers, peonies are a common flower choice among brides, thanks to their symbolism. They represent romance and love and are considered a good omen of a happy marriage. They're also the traditional flower for 12th wedding anniversaries. Interestingly, during the Victorian Era, the flowers represented shame and shyness. In China and Japan, they stand for strong and positive virtues, such as bravery, honor, respect, nobility, good fortune, and prosperity.

sarah bernhardt pink peony
'Sarah Bernhardt' is a favorite double variety. Janet Mesic Mackie

6. Alaska Produces Millions of Cut Peonies

The Netherlands is the largest cut peony producer (over 40 percent of the estimated worldwide production), but an up-and-coming source is, perhaps surprisingly, Alaska. The longer, cooler growing season there allows for larger blooms later in the growing season, according to the Alaska Peony Society. That means they're available from June to September during the prime wedding season. The most commonly grown variety is 'Sarah Bernhardt,' which has soft pink, petal-packed double blooms and is one of the few that florists will request by name.

If you love lots of petals and fragrance, peonies are the flower for you. These flowers carry a rich history of meaning, medicinal use, and myth and are a delight to grow in the garden. If you choose to plant peonies, keep this in mind: These amazing perennials might outlive you!

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  1. Dong-Yi He and  Sheng-Ming Dai. Anti-Inflammatory and Immunomodulatory Effects of Paeonia Lactiflora Pall., a Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine. Frontiers in Pharmacology volume 2, 2011. doi: 10.3389/fphar.2011.00010
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