#70 Peonies





Photo by EKS

The thirty-three species of peonies come in two basic forms: the herbaceous varieties in the genus Paeonia grow one to three feet tall; the “tree peonies” (section Mouton) are much larger shrubs with woody stems and can reach heights over ten feet (Ward 279)[1].  All species are perennials, native to the northern hemisphere; tree peonies originate exclusively from central to southern China, including Tibet (Wikipedia).  Often called “the thornless rose” (Heilmeyer 68), garden peonies have a range of forms from the fairly simple single peony with a row of petals surrounding a “mass of pollen-bearing stamens and seed-bearing carpels” to the anemone version in which the inner stamens have broadened, producing a kind of interior powder puff, to the bomb and full-double varieties where hybridization has encouraged all the inner elements to transform into petals, creating a voluminous globe of a blossom (Harding 33-4).[2]  The sheer profusion of petals combined with the wide range of colors -- from white to yellow, through various pinks to deep crimson -- engenders hyperbolic praise from some garden enthusiasts. Alice Harding begins her definitive 1917 treatise on Peonies in the Little Garden by declaring the peony is “the most superb and commanding flower which the garden holds” (5).  Calling the peony “the very epitome of June,” Vita Sackville-West suggests a more ironic appreciation of its rather old-fashioned charms when she calls her peonies “my gross Edwardian swagger ladies” (Garden Book 98, 99).


 Grown for hundreds of years in China and Japan, the peony has a long and distinguished history in Western myth, history, medical lore, and literature, dating as far back as Homeric Greece. In Book V of the Illiad, Paeon is introduced as the physician to the Gods who cures Ares of a mortal wound and later provides a similar service to Hades (ll. 401, 899).[3]  According to Hollingsworth, Leto, the mother of Apollo, gave the healing root to Paeon, a student of the famed Aesculapius, but Aesculapius grew jealous of his success and killed him, so Hades restored him to life by transforming him into a flower (Hollingworth 99). An alternate origin story is presented by the seventeenth-century French poet Rene Rapin who tells of a nymph named Paeonia who, unable to turn away the amorous advances of the sun god, blushed so red with shame that she gave her name to the flower (Ward 280; Folkard 252). It is probably this story that gave rise to the association of the peony with shame and bashfulness in the symbolic code of the Victorian Language of  Flowers (Greenaway 32).


In medical lore, the peony root is particularly cited as a cure for nighttime terrors, a rather odd association considering that the healing powers of Paeon became associated with Apollo to the degree that songs praising him were named “paens” (Ward 279).  The first to record the plant’s specific healing properties was the Roman historian Pliny, who, citing the ancient origins of the peony, said “This plant is a preservative against delusions practiced by the Fauni in sleep (nightmares)” (Harding 14).  It was also widely used as a cure for epilepsy (Hollingworth 102); in his book on the folklore of plants, Folkard remarks, “To this day in Sussex, necklaces of beads turned from the peony root are worn by young children to prevent convulsions and assist them in teething” (253). The seeds were also ground and used as spices.  Harding points out that in Piers Plowman  “a priest asks a woman if she has any “hote spices” and she says ‘I have peper and piones’” (17).  


            After Piers Plowman and a contemporaneous mention of a flower border in The Pearl which includes “Gilfore (clove-pinks) and gingure (tansy)” and “pyonys powdered ay between”  (Harding 17), peonies appear only rarely in British literature.  Most cited is a passage in Ceres’s wedding masque in Act IV of Shakespeare’s The Tempest where Prospero praises:


                              Thy banks with pioned and twilled brims,

Which spongy April at thy hest betrims,

To make cold nymphs chaste crowns;  (IV, I, ll, 71-4)


  Although, in his definitive 1896 guide to The Plant-Lore and Garden-Craft of Shakespeare, Henry Ellacomb identifies “piones” with the peony, Gerit Quealy’s more modern botanical compendium refuses to list the flower as one cited by Shakespeare. Suggesting that such strained interpretations (What then does “twilled” refer to? Willows? Lilies?) are a matter of a decorative determination to “sow flowers where the are none,” he instead refers to the archaic meaning of “pioned” as having to do with digging (as in pioneer: a digger). When paired with “twilled,” meaning trimmed, it becomes clear that the banks are being readied for spring planting by being dig and pruned (Quealy 200).  In fact, peonies are so rare in British literature that Hollingsworth declares that this peony mirage is “the only appearance of the peony in English poetry” (111). Apparently he forgot about Keats’ “Ode to Melancholy,” the second stanza of which suggests that “when the melancholy fit. . . That fosters the droop-headed flowers” shall fall, the melancholic shouldglut thy sorrow on a morning rose. . . Or on the wealth of globed peonies” (ll.  11-7).


            Virginia Woolf’s eight references to peonies mostly center on appreciating their globed wealth of beauty.  At the age of fifteen, she recorded an early June stroll in Kensington Gardens with her older half-sister Stella where they “walked up & down the flower walk, & looked at the flowers, peonies especially” (PA 95). Sixteen years later, she was admiring her own peonies at Asham. In April of 1913 she writes to Vanessa that the peonies are “out in front but not in back” (L2 24), and five years later, in May of 1918, she confides to her diary that the garden at Asham is the “best yet: wallflowers, columbines, phlox, scarlet poppies, peonies” (D1 151).  The next year marks her most extravagant praise of the flowers. In a June 1919 letter to Saxon Sydney-Turner, she makes up a rather hilarious fantasy about how much she craves peonies: “I don't care how thickly I flatter old gentlemen if they will give me peonies -- I suppose I might be wandering by, see them over the garden wall, and ask to be allowed to look closer -- would that be a good opening?  Or will you take me to tea there, and pretend that I want to buy a house in Mortlake -- then accidentally, I might look out of the window and exclaim Peonies! etc etc.  It lends itself to many variations”(L2 366).  That Woolf’s early enthusiasm for peonies continued throughout her life is suggested by the fact that years later, in 1932, Leonard bought peonies to plant in their own garden at Monk’s House (LWGA).


The two times Woolf mentions peonies in her fiction -- at the beginning and end of her career --emphasize the transient fragility of the blossom: the moment when the extravagant globe suddenly collapses into fragments.  In the 1918 short story “The Evening Party” the narrator’s aphoristic comment on a stranger in the garden, “she’s touched the peony; all the petals fall,” rings like an announcement of a final peripeteia, the irrevocable, accidental end of a fragile innocence (CSF 101).  There is a similar moment near the end of Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts (1941), when Lucy and Bart meet by the lily pool; as Lucy is being wheeled away by a footman, Bart recovers his solitary view of the house as it emerges from its obfuscation by the hoards of visitors, and picks up “a peony that had shed it petals” (138) -- a fitting emblem of the transience of what Woolf in another context called  “party consciousness” (D3 12).


        Interestingly, this view of the peony as a symbol of the sudden fading of beauty is echoed by Woolf’s gardening friend, Vita Sackville West who, in a 1952 article in The Observer, commented rather poetically on how the peony “sheds its vast petticoats with a bump on the table, all in an intact heap, much as a rose will suddenly fall, making us look up from our book or conversation, to notice for one moment the death of what had still appeared to be a living beauty” (In Your Garden Again 88; rpt in Garden Book 98).


Cindy Payne's Peony.  EKS



[1] The Wikipedia entry on peonies contains full taxonomical information.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peony  (Accessed February 12, 2021)


[2] For illustrations of the six forms of peonies see the Wikipedia entry.


[3] Line attributions from Theio: Greek Mythology website:   https://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/Paion.html  Accessed 2/14/21

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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...