A paean to the peony

The varied peony has become a protean metaphor, including for healing after violence.

It has been beloved by everyone from the philosopher Confucius to Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. It has become a symbol of mighty opposites – male and female, war and peace – and a perennial tribute to beauty’s infinite variety and mystery.

And while it is native to Asia, Europe and western North America — with late bloomers basking in the long sunlit hours of Alaska mid to late summer — this is the peony’s moment in WAG country.

On May 9, the Friends of the Rockefeller State Park Preserve in Pleasantville will host its 2019 Peony Celebration. A fundraiser for the organization and projects in the preserve, the evening will feature a fine art exhibit and a flower show presented by gardening clubs under a tent in the visitors center courtyard at the entrance to the preserve.  

There you will find the Tree Peony Garden, teeming with 500 peonies in crimson, mauve, hot pink, white and pale yellow for a brief but stunning moment from about the first week in May through Mother’s Day. The shrubs were given to the United States by Yatsuka Cho, a town in Shimane Prefecture in southern Japan, as a gesture of healing and solidarity after Sept. 11. 

Flowers, of course, have always been a source of comfort and refreshment for the spirit. But the peony seems particularly suited to its role as a floral bridge over troubled water. In Serbia, red peonies are said to memorialize the Serbians fallen in the Battle of Kosovo (June 1389) between the defending Serbs and the invading forces of the Ottoman Empire. The bloom’s very name represents a resolution of conflict. The ancient Greeks were fond of associating flowers with tragic mythological figures — think of the solipsistic Narcissus, pining away for his own reflected beauty, and the tender Hyacinth, lover of the sun god Apollo, killed by the jealous West Wind, Zephyrus. So it is with the peony, whose name comes from Paean, from which we get our word for a “hymn of praise.” Paean was a student of one of Apollo’s sons, Asclepius, the god of medicine. But though he was a compassionate physician, Asclepius was not above being jealous of Paean — perhaps because “Paean,” meaning “the healer,” was also an epithet of Apollo and Asclepius. (Subsequently, the Romans called hymns to Apollo “paeans.”)

In any event, Zeus — king of the Olympian gods, father of Apollo and grandfather of Asclepius — turned Paean into a peony so he would be protected.

Simultaneously, the Chinese were cultivating the peony — whose approximately 35 species can be either herbaceous perennial plants or woody shrubs — for its medicinal and culinary properties. The philosopher Confucius was said to eat nothing that was not flavored by peonies. Soon peony fever spread from the imperial gardens of China to Japan, which developed a number of species. Ultimately, some of the Asian cousins made their way to Europe — with the tree peony being planted in Kew Gardens in London in 1789 and intense cultivation taking off in the 19th century.

Today, the peony is also a bridge between East and West as it remains the de facto official flower of China (and the state flower of Indiana), while the Netherlands, land of the tulip, nonetheless is the top producer of cut stems, selling 50 million a year — with the pink, cabbage-like Sarah Bernhardt, named for the incandescent 19th-century French actress, the most popular (more than 20 million stems).

From the Bernhardt to the buttercup-ful daurica to the poppy-like tenuifolia, the peony enchants with its variety of textures and pastel and jewel-like colors. No wonder it has been a favorite of artists, including the 18th-century Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione, who painted in the court of China’s Qianlong Emperor; Pierre-Joseph Redouté, the Napoleonic botanical painter better-known for his roses; French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir; and Japanese woodblock print master Utagawa Kuniyoshi, whose paintings of warriors with peony tattoos gave the flower a breezy masculinity and reconnected it with its early militaristic roots.

In the design world, the peony has had a more traditionally feminine energy. Barnes & Noble has carried throw pillows featuring botanical prints of the bloom and couturier Monique Lhuillier has used peachy pink ones in her silk flower collections for Pottery Barn, while the delicately sweet scent has inspired a 2015 collaboration between the New York Botanical Garden and Chesapeake Bay Candle as well as the Markle Sparkle Candle in honor of the former Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, and Jo Malone’s Peony & Blush Suede fragrance. 

For many, the evanescent peony is personal. “I can’t remember a time that I didn’t love this glorious flower,” says Ronni Diamondstein, a writer and award-winning photographer who lives in Chappaqua and has written for WAG, among other publications. “My fondness is attached to a memory that I can still picture today. We had peonies in our garden when I was a child. They bloomed in June just in time for my mother to pin a delicate blossom on me for my birthday, which she did every year. To this day whether pale pink, bubblegum or coral charm, I fill my home with beautiful bouquets of a much beloved flower through their season and especially on my birthday.”

For lovers of the peony — blossom of transformation — every day is a birthday.

The 2019 Peony Celebration at Rockefeller State Park Preserve in Pleasantville on May 9 from 6 to 9 p.m. includes a Champagne toast, cocktails, savory food and a silent auction. Tickets are $125. For more, visit friendsrock.org.

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