The peony flower has its own genus of about 30 species. Interestingly enough, it is also the only genus in the Paeoniaceae family. The greater number of these species is perennial and herbaceous. About a third, however, are shrubs. The very florets are famous for their largeness; the bright green compound leaves are also a key element in the structure of the peony. Contrasting vividly with the green parts, the peony’s florets are brightly coloured as well, but never in green (naturally, though some new bred cultivars fall well into the green shades). These plants are indigenous to Europe and Asia. Yet, they are mostly related to North America and more specifically – the USA.
It would be impossible to discuss these flowers without explaining that their very name is derived from the name of Paeon – the gods’ physician. There are two different Greek legends that include a source for the name of the flowers and its relation to jealousy and envy. One explains to us that the great physician was once a student of Asclepius.
As Paeon developed his abilities and became a genius himself, his teacher and tutor grew envious of him. In order to protect the man, Zeus himself turned the physician into those earthly flowers so that he would be far from Asclepius’ reach and anger. The other story is similar, although relates to the beautiful wood nymph Paeonia and the goddess Venus who was the jealous one. Here, however, the goddess changed the nymph into the flower in order to get her away from the gods who loved her maybe more than their adored Venus herself.
The relation with medicine is also present in the many uses of this species. Myths of it soothing abilities are brought about from the Middle Ages through images and various recordings. The mentally unstable people were being covered in the petals in order to calm down and return to their senses. In the past people used the flower to soothe the pains during birth as well as to cure jaundice. The internal consummation of these plants, however, is not advised since it may lead to poisoning.
Regardless of these widely known and accepted myths, in the language of flowers, the Peony plant has some very positive meanings. Beauty and gentleness are two of the main ones, but there are also shyness and shame. It is a symbol of prosperous union in the western world, but in the East the meaning is very different. In China, having been declared the official national flower during the Qing dynasty, these plants are regarded as something very special. In Japan, since the cultivation is very difficult, the peony flower is still a reminder of how only the higher classes could afford them.
Hence, the meaning in Japan is rather that of prosperity and fortune (financially speaking as well). Sometimes, to be given a peony means that someone is confiding in you. The flower symbolises the secret and secret-keeping. It might also mean that the person who is gifting it has a secret they’d like to confide in you, but which must stay hidden.