Peonies are really just shameless show-offs, with their fancy frills and gorgeous colours. Here’s everything you need to know about these seasonal sensations…
Try creeping up to a flower person and suddenly whispering ‘Peony!’ at them. You’ll see their ears prick up, their eyes go all misty and there’s a decent chance they’ll say in a dreamy voice: ‘That’s my favourite flower, how did you know?’
Because peonies are, let’s face it, sensations: great explosions of frilly petals, bursting out in the most outrageous manner from tiny tight buds.
They’re show-offs, really. Perhaps that’s why one of the most popular contemporary varieties is named after that legendary diva, the French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who looked like this:
The flowerful Sarah Bernhardt in around 1878
Whenever we’ve included Sarah Bernhardts in our Freddie’s Flowers boxes we’ve had rave reviews from our customers. Well, just look at them…
In terms of arranging peonies, you don’t have to do much really as they’re perfectly fine on their own. Pop them in a vase and they just keep opening and opening, filling your room with scent and colour.
A brief history of peonies
Peonies as popular garden and cut flowers actually date back much further than La Bernhardt. The genus Paeonia (the only genus in the family Paeoniaceae) is native to Asia, Europe and North America, with around thirty or forty varieties worldwide.
They’re named after Paean, a physician in Greek mythology who was turned into a flower by the god Zeus. But historically, they’re most associated with the Far East.
Portrait of a peony by Chinese artist Yun Shouping, 17th century
In China they’ve been cultivated since at least the sixth century, initially for medicine and then increasingly as ornamental flowers. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Japanese began cultivating them in earnest, creating cross-breeds between herbaceous and tree peonies called ‘Itoh’ (or ‘intersectional’) peonies.
And European peony-mania really began in 19th century France when the great floriculturalist Victor Lemoine began creating the glorious ancestors of the varieties we see today.
Growing your own peonies
In general, you plant peonies in the autumn and they flower between mid-spring and early summer. They have a reputation for being quite tricky to grow: you need to plant them in full sun and they often require staking as the stems may not be strong enough to keep the large flowers upright by themselves. They’re also vulnerable to a ghastly fungal infection called peony wilt.
But if you fancy having a go, the RHS has a good guide to growing peonies here.
Freddie’s Peony Facts!
1. Confucius used to eat them
In Ancient China peonies were used for flavoring food, and Confucius liked them so much that he once said: “I eat nothing without its sauce. I enjoy it very much, because of its flavour.”
2. You’ve got to hide from woodpeckers when picking them
…otherwise, according to an ancient superstition, if one sees you it might peck out your eyes.
3. Renoir loved them
The great Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir painted lots of peony pictures. This is just one of them:
August Renoir – Peonies (1880)
4. They’re bashful, or possibly angry
In various varieties of floriography (‘the language of flowers’) peonies represent ‘bashfulness’ or ‘shame’ because their petals apparently conceal mischievous nymphs. On the other hand, in Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s terrific flower dictionary they mean ‘anger’.
5. They’re very popular in Japanese tattoos
The 18th Century painter Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s illustrations of Sumarai warrior myths feature a lot of peonies, which in Japanese culture have a masculine, devil-may-care symbolism. His designs are still very trendy for tattoos.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s peony-covered Samurais