Nothing quite prepares you for the majesty of a peony in full bloom. The extraordinary frill of petals reminds me of amongst other things, a lion’s mane. There are numerous horticultural varieties of peony but the most decorative cultivar known as the “King of Flowers” is the Tree peony botan (Paeonia suffructicosa).There is much variation in color and flower shape. White, red, soft pink, magenta and even yellow can be seen. They can be either single or double petalled. They are grand show stoppers and are often depicted in paintings, kimono and hanging scrolls. As a combination for classical art, peonies and butterflies are often depicted together.
Introduced from China in the 8th century by Buddhist monks who admired the peony as a medicinal plant, they were originally widely planted in temple grounds. Perhaps it is not well known that temples favored plants that could provide a healing utility. The tea plant Camellia sinensis was also grown in this capacity. Peony is used in traditional medicine as a pain killer and anti-pyretic. Therefore the flowers were less important than the bark and roots. Actually the genus name commemorates Paeon, the physician of the Greek Gods.
The other day, when I was discussing the lavish display of peony blooms in the Zen temple Kenninji in the Gion district of Kyoto, of the students in my Ikebana class made what I thought was an interesting cultural comment. It was her belief that it was not really appropriate for a Zen temple to display such dazzling gorgeousness and that the cumulative effect of viewing too many peonies was something akin to “indigestion”. I nodded quietly to myself, yet again reminded that the traditional Japanese aesthetic eschews overly “loud” displays. Traditional manuals for tea ceremony advise that special care should be taken when selecting vases to display peonies in the tea room. There are special baskets that exist exclusively for peonies. Alternatively, old bronze seiji vessels are seen as appropriate receptacles given the grand nature and Chinese provenance of the flower.
In addition to be grown at temples medicinally, peonies were also favored by the aristocracy. Peonies had been planted at the Chinese Imperial Palace since before the Tang Dynasty (618-907).Because of this, peony symbolism included nobility, honor and wealth. These associations continued and were also adopted by the Japanese Imperial Court during the Heian period (794-1185) in Japan. They were very expensive and therefore only available to the elite until the 19th century when advances in grafting techniques made them more affordable for regular people.
The other most common variety of peony in Japan is known as the Chinese peony or the herbaceous peony shakuyaku (Paeonia obovata). It was probably introduced from China (where it has been cultivated since 900 B.C), at a similar time as the Tree peony in the 8th century. It differs from Paeonia suffructicosa in that it emerges out of perennial root stock every Spring and unlike the Tree peony, does not become woody. Flower colors are not quite as varied as the Tree peony but there are also single and double petalled varieties. Almost as beautiful as the “King of Flowers”, shakuyaku is said to be the “Prime minister of Flowers”.
The magnificent fragility of both Tree peony and Chinese peony blooms becomes obvious after even a brief Spring rain. Naturally this evanescence makes them even more beautiful in the traditional Japanese aesthetic.
“After cutting the peony my mind seemed emptied-twilight”
Yosa Buson (1716-1784)