Kicking off the peony season, here is the second peony article written by Heather Cook:
Few plants can offer a history like the peony plant. It’s believed that the peony was known in China as far back as 1000 BC. In the 7th century AD, peonies became popular amongst Chinese royalty and began to increase in demand and value. The best varieties were extremely expensive. It is told that peony plants were often included as part of a dowry settlement amongst the wealthy elite of Chinese society during the Tang Dynasty. Peonies continued to be favored by Chinese royalty and as their kingdoms expanded, the peony’s geographic territory grew. Chinese began using grafting techniques to expand the variety of peony colors and shapes as far back as the 12th century.
By the 8th century, peonies reached Japan, where horticulturists developed more cultivars of peony. Japanese developed a more simple flower shape known today as the “Japanese form” which contained a rounded center of small petals surrounded by a ring of larger petals. In 1948, Toichi Itoh of Japan developed the first “intersectional cross” peonies, crossing tree peonies with herbaceous peonies which resulted in many new cultivars of peony. Most notably, Itoh developed the first double peony variety in the color of yellow. Before this introduction, the only yellow peonies were tree varieties, typically pale yellow, cream colored single flowered types.
Peonies throughout Europe were generally cultivated for their medicinal properties. The peony had been widely used in both Europe and throughout Asia for its medicinal values. Peony leaves, seeds, roots, flowers and bark have widely been used for treating everything from bad dreams to pain relief and control of epileptic seizures. Research into medicinal uses of the various peony plants continues to this day.
Tree peonies did not arrive into Europe until the late 1700’s, and they grew enormously in popularity throughout the 1800’s. Many tree variety peonies were imported to Europe and used in breeding programs. Even though most of the peonies we are familiar with today carry European names, these varieties have their roots firmly placed in China and Japan.
There are several forms of flowers on the peony, without getting too technical, here is a brief description of peony forms and shapes.
Single—Single ring of petals and small center of pollen-bearing stamens, very similar to a poppy.
Semi-double—Multiple rows of petals and a small center of pollen-bearing stamens. Very similar shape as double poppies.
Japanese—Single row of enlarged petals surrounding a center of modified stamens which appear like a mound of petals in the middle. The anemone form is an advanced stage of the Japanese form somewhere in between the Japanese and double forms.
Double—center of flower contains a fully round mound of stamens that have been modified to become petals, surrounded by multiple rows of petals. Modified stamens create a huge puff ball in the middle of the flower, they are referred to as “petaloids”. This form of fully double peony is often referred to by peony experts as the “bomb” type of peony. If you’ve ever had the privilege of watching a double peony open, you can clearly see why the name “bomb” fits so well. Pretty dynamic flower for its age!
Check out this video of a time lapse video of a peony opening – it’s beautiful!