Anatomy of a Flower: Peony

In Season In Spring

Cultivating a love for the ultimate ruffled petal.

Don’t judge the peony just by its looks. For over 2,000 years, this fluffy, feminine bloom has been sought after in the Far East and Europe for its supposed medicinal qualities. From its flower heads to its dangling roots, P. officinalis and P. mascula (the official names for female and male peonies) have been used to treat everything from epileptic seizures to gall stones.

The power of the peony has also captured the eye of artists for centuries. As the subject of countless paintings, tapestries and decorative objects by Chinese artists, it is the unofficial national flower of that country. By the eighth century, Japanese artists and poets were also seduced by these soft, plump blooms. It wasn’t until the 18th century that peonies made their grand entrance in Europe. Soon after, Renoir began painting peonies as one of his muses.

Today in the U.S., peonies are more popular than ever, loved for their decorative use at special occasions like weddings. There are more than 500 kinds of peonies and China and Japan are two of the major producers.

Much of the peony’s wedding cache derives from its stunning looks. It has a large, full head, jam-packed with ruffled petals that open up into (most often) a white or pink-hued cotton ball of a bloom. Though it is considered the anniversary flower for a couple’s 12th year of marriage, many brides seek out this precious posy for their wedding day as well. Since it is said to signify happiness and prosperity, is it any wonder how popular the peony is?

But an appreciation of peonies does come with a cost. Specifically, a higher price tag than other complementary wedding blooms like roses. It is mostly due to the fact that they are not flowers that bloom year-round. The height of their most productive season is short and sweet: the spring. This is the time when you’ll find them for under $10 a stem. By winter they’re so hard to come by that, if you can find a florist to use them, the price can double.

The upside of a splurge on peonies is that you may not need many to fill out your bouquets and centerpieces. As a lavish bloom with a high petal count, you only need one or two to make an impression. They also mix beautifully with cheaper flowers like roses and lilies. (Psst...if you really want to fake-out guests with lower cost flowers that “look” like peonies, consider cabbage roses.)

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