Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Pleasures of Peonies

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Susan reporting:

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


Isabelle said...

What beautiful pictures!

Undine said...

The Chinese also believed that having peonies growing around your house brought you good fortune. However, if the plants happened to die, that was a sign you'd be getting some bad tidings indeed. (I suppose that's why they were depicted in art so often--it enabled people to keep peonies around that were "immortal.")

Moral: If you're lucky enough to have peony plants, keep a real close eye on those things.

Rowenna said...

I love peonies--my favorites! I wander into peoples' yards to smell their peonies...hope no one minds trespassers!

I once read a legend about the peony: A capricious empress ordered all the flowers in her garden to bloom in winter, and only peony refused. So it was banished from the garden, but embraced by the common people for its loyalty to its nature.

Woodwose said...

Your daughter is to be complimented for these exquisite photos! What a lovely way to start the day.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

I passed along the complements to my daughter. :)

Undine and Rowenna, I love these peony-fables. The one about keeping a close eye on the peonies kind of gave me a chill, however.

Years ago, there was a beautiful cluster of peonies in a nearby neighbor's yard. The house sold, and the new neighbor callously mowed over them as a nuisance. Soon after, he moved out, and the family disintegrated. Revenge of the Peonies? I wonder!

Rowenna, I'm probably safer with your story, since as far as I know, there are no empresses in my neighborhood. *g*

Finegan Antiques said...

Peonies are my favorite flower next to wild violets. We have the standard colors of white and pink but last year we purchased two plants that had an almost deep blood red color. FANTASTIC! The survived our winter and we are currently enjoying the stunning flowers along with the white an pink ones. Just love them!!

Thanks for the history lesson. I had no idea. Great site.


Bearded Lady said...

When you see them up close, you understand why so many artists painted peonies. They are so perfect looking. Now you got me wishing I had a green thumb. I want to wake up to peonies below my window too!

Barbara Wells Sarudy said...

A beautiful posting!

Nadine2point0 said...

Beautiful blog!
My sister-in-law brought back Peony Tea for me from Shanghai...which I treasure enormously. It tastes like the joy one feels when looking at a stand of pale pink peonies. Wow, that was dramatic.
Anyhow, Great photos!

Jolene said...

It doesn't surprise me that next to roses, peonies are one of the most popular flower choices for wedding bouquets. They're so romantic and feminine, yet still don't look out of place with modern dress styles. And they photograph amazingly, too! Trends may come and go, but peonies remain a timeless classic.

Jane Charles said...

I love peonies and need to plant more in my yard. I just wished they bloomed longer though. They started blooming early this year because of crazy warm weather. I had no idea they had such a history.

Lil said...

I adore peonies. They are such gorgeously excessive flowers. Nothing shy about these ladies!

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