If June belongs to roses, then surely May is the month for peonies. Peonies seem to me to be sumptuously old-fashioned flowers, which earns them a worthy place at the TNHG.
And as flowers go, peonies are very old flowers, more than old enough to qualify as historical. Peonies have been grown in China for thousands of years, though at first they were primarily revered not for their blooms, but for their medicinal purposes.
In traditional Chinese medicine, the bark of tree peonies and the roots of herbaceous varieties were used for cooling the blood and relieving both pain and infections. In medieval Europe, peonies became a favorite cure-all, recommended for relieving everything from gallstones, childbirth pain, epileptic seizure, and the ever-popular evil spirits.
It wasn't until the seventh century that peonies were used in ornamental gardens in China, and the flowers were soon so desired that they were placed under imperial protection. While the emperor's gardeners labored to foster more and
more extravagant blooms, his artists, too, were inspired by the flowers, and peonies can be found not only in Chinese screen paintings and woodblocks, but also woven into tapestries, embroidered in silk, and glazed onto porcelain.
By the eighth century, the Japanese had discovered ornamental peonies as well, but Western Europeans had to wait another thousand years. In 1789, legendary naturalist and botanist Sir Joseph Banks commissioned a tree peony to be brought to England by way of the British East India Company, and planted this first tree peony in Kew Gardens. The flowers remained difficult to obtain until the later 19th c., when English and American gardeners eagerly began developing varieties of their own.
With their air of the exotic, the lush flowers became favorites with Western artists in the 19th c., too, and appear in paintings by Renoir, Whistler, and Fantin-Latour as well as in Art Nouveau posters. What better captures the full-blown fin-de-siecle that a porcelain bowl overflowing with peonies?
I'm fortunate to live near the Winterthur Museum and Country Estate, and can enjoy their fabulous Peony Garden. Established nearly a century ago, the garden has hundreds of peonies of every variety and in colors that range from palest white to deep bronze. It's literally breath-taking, and well worth a visit if you're near Wilmington, DE in May. The photographs here were taken at Winterthur last year by my daughter; you know it's an impressive garden when its beauty captivates a teenager!
Top: Vase de Pivoines (Vase of Peonies) by Henri Fantin-Latour, 1881, Honolulu Academy of Art