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Love, prosperity and honour. Three words exquisitely embodied by this flower whose countless shades of colour, along with its scent, have enchanted emperors and nobles throughout any number of eras and epochs. 

The Queen of the Chinese Garden, and today of gardens all over the world: we set out to discover the peony, an all-purpose shrub whose flower is among the most highly prized of today’s world, thanks to its appearance, its history and its tantalising scent. 

The peony is deeply rooted in the history of numerous peoples, its name and image having created legends and symbols that are still a part of our world.

But what exactly is the Chinese Peony?

The peony is an ornamental plant, the only such member of the ranunculaceae family of perennial plants, which enjoy extraordinary longevity, thanks to how well their sturdy, bundled roots adjust to most types of soil, and even to draught. 

This makes the peony one of the easiest ornamental plants to grow, as long as a few key tips are followed. 

The peony’s distinctive feature is its colourful flowering, which graces our gardens yearly. In a brief but intense blossoming that runs from April to May, all the world’s peonies debut large, eye-catching flowers that have from 5 to 10 petals each. Depending on the species, the peony’s colour can vary from pristine white to “bubble-gum” pink, but also bright red and exotic shades of yellow, while the leaves are always emerald green.

Peony legends: the flower of Gods and Emperors

The peony is more than just another beautiful flower… two different legends for the origins of the peony come from two very distant (and different) lands: China and Greece.

The term “Peony” can be traced to Paean, the Greek god of medicine, or the “attending physician” of the gods of Greek mythology. 

One legend hearkens back to an episode in the Iliad, where Homer tells of how Paean was transformed into a flower by Zeus after he had used the roots of a plant with powerful therapeutic properties to heal the serious wounds suffered by the god Pluto in a fight with Hercules. 

To protect the god Paean from the rage of his teacher Asclepius, who was furious over how the pupil’s healing powers had surpassed his own, Zeus gave the gift of immortality to the “doctor to the gods”, transforming him into the Peony plant, whose roots, with their countless medicinal properties, are still used today.  

The Peony: an immortal plant whose patience is infinite 

The second legend comes from the peony’s country of origin, China, where 2000 years ago it already played an important role in Chinese imperial society, and in the collective imaginations of peoples throughout Asia, who lovingly refer to it as the “Queen of Flowers”. But how did it obtain this title?

Legend has it that one chilly winter morning an empress who was as beautiful as she was capricious used her magical powers to order all the flowers in the imperial garden to blossom. 

Each of the flowers, fearing the wrath of the Empress, obeyed her whim, except one, the peony!

Shaken by the flower’s impudence, the Empress ordered her servants to move all the peonies of the realm to the coldest, most distant reaches of the Empire. 

But the peony withstood the cold, inhospitable climate, bringing forth its gloriously coloured blossoms for all the world to see. Realizing that she had been defeated by the strength and determination of the peony, the Empress allowed it return from exile, crowning the plant the “Queen of All Flowers”.

The Peony’s healing properties

These two legends combine the unique features of the peony: its strength and longevity, plus the healing properties of its roots … and there is more!

Homeopathic medicine utilises every last part of the Peony plant (roots, leaves, seeds and flowers) to treat spasms and serve as a sedative, even in the case of epileptic attacks. Its roots also provide an excellent cure for neuralgia, migraines, agitation and anxiety.

This is thanks to substances such as paenolum and the paeoniflorin of the flower’s petals, with its sedative, analgesic effect.

Not infrequently, a pinch of peony is found in the herbal brews we drink today, lending a fruited flavour to any number of relaxing potions.

In short, the peony is a plant whose all-consuming usefulness, from its seeds, to its roots to its flowers, has made it a partner to our wellbeing right up to the present day.

A spectacular delight that should be experienced first-hand, the peony plays a leading role in gardens throughout the world, but one garden where it is showcased all by itself is found a lot closer to us than you might imagine!

The Lazio region boasts one of the largest single-plant botanical centres dedicated to peony, the Moutan Botanical Centre in the Town of Vitorchiano (in the Province of Viterbo). 

Each year, these 30-plus acres of pure poetry, home to more than 600 varieties of Chinese peonies, are opened to the public during the blossoming period, offering an array of colours and scents that make for a must-see, must-savour event.

For more info su on how to visit the Center click HERE