The World of the Peony (I)

A historical introduction Species of herbaceous peonies Cultivars from Europe
The Peony in botany Species of tree Peonies Cultivars from the USA
The peony in the garden (I) Cultivars from China Itoh hybrids / Intersectionals
The peony in the garden (II) Cultivars from Japan Japan

View into the future of Peony breeding

A historical introduction


Few other garden plants go back in history as far as peonies, which in China have been used and cultivated for over 4000 years. There are hundreds of cultivars, of which only a few can be found in gardens in Central Europe.

In ancient times the peony was held in high esteem as a medicinal plant. Paian, the physician of the Greek gods, gave the plant its name; with peony roots he healed Hades, god of the underworld, who had been wounded by Heracles. The peony was mentioned again and again in herbals of Greek and Roman times and the Middle Ages.

Peony of an Illustration in a herbal of the late antique or the early middle ages.

Foto: Walter Good

Peony of an Illustration in a herbal of the late antique or the early middle ages (detail).

Foto: Walter Good

Benedictine monks introduced it to the monastery gardens north of the Alps in the early Middle Ages - the name «Benedictine rose» reminds us of this fact. From there it found its way into the cottage gardens.


One of the most beautiful representations of Paeonia officinalis can be found in the altar picture «Maria im Rosenhag» by Schongauer (former Dominican church, Colmar).

The detail shows an open peony flower with rose and peony foliage.

The detail shows a flower bud of the peony with beautiful leaves.

The detail shows the inner of an open peony flower with numerous anthers.


In Christian symbolism the peony flower represented wealth, feminine beauty, and healing power. In the Middle Ages peonies were often painted with their ripe seed-capsules, since it was the seeds, not the flowers, which were medically significant. The physicians of those times recommended peonies for curing, among other things, bladder stones, jaundice, stomach ache, diarrhoea, labour pains, nightmares, epilepsy, and lunacy. Usually the roots and seeds of the plants were used. According to historical sources, herb collectors in the Middle Ages had to take great care not to seen by a woodpecker while digging for peony roots, or the bird might peck out their eyes.


Paeonia officinalis, by Conrad Gessner (ca. 1550)

The origin of the double form of Paeonia officinalis,nowadays flowering in many gardens, lies in the late Middle Ages. It has been represented in many Dutch flower pictures and is probably a hybrid of the late Middle Ages.

In the 19th century, not only were numerous new peony varieties produced, but also many peony paintings, of which those by Manet, Renoir, Fantin-Latour, Gauguin, Bazille and Delacroix are best known.

Peonies, Auguste Renoir, 1879



In China the peony was the flower par excellence. It had long been used as a medicinal plant before it was cultivated in gardens. Numerous poems, paintings, and pictures on vases glorify the beauty of the peony, which according to legend even rebelled against the will of the Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang dynasty: it was the only flower which refused to bloom in winter at her command. As a punishment it was banished from the imperial gardens. The wrath of the eccentric empress was so fierce that she orderd all the peonies of the capital city to be destroyed.

In der Päonie 'Jiu Zui Yang Fei' (Betrunkene Kaiserliche Kokubine Yang) lebt die Konkubine Yang fort, deretwegen der damalige Kaiser seine Regierungspflichten sträflich vernachlässigte.

Representation of peonies by Lang Shih-ning (Giuseppe Castiglione, 1688 - 1766) from the Ch'ing Dynasty. The Italian Jesuit, painter and architect lived and worked at the court of Emperor Ch'ien Lung.

In China, the most important country of peony origins, many splendid pictures have been painted from the Tang Dynasty up to the present time. This is a painting by Chian Ting-hsi (1669 - 1732) of the Ch'ing Dynasty.



Walter Good
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