Paeonia is named after Paeon, a student of Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing in Greek mythology. Paeon was taught by Leto, Apollo's mother and goddess of fertility, to obtain a magical root from Mount Olympus that would soothe the pain of women in childbirth, thus incurring the wrath of his teacher. A jealous Asclepius then threatened to kill Paeonia, whom Zeus rescued by turning into the peony flower.
Since ancient times the tree peony has been a favorite flower in China, where it is the symbol of wealth, fortune, luck, prosperity and happiness. The Chinese name for peony is "sho yu" which means most beautiful. The history of the tree peony cultivation dates back to the Sui Dynasty (581AD-618AD). The Chinese royal family cherished peonies and the tree peony became known as the "Emperor of Flowers." It was introduced to Japan in the 8th century, where it was celebrated as the "Flower of Wealth." It wasn't until 1787 that the peony was introduced to England and the rest of Europe, where it remains a popular flower. In 1820, it was brought to America, where it has been hybridized to a great extent.
The Chinese have so many great legends about the peonies, and my favorite is the story of the Number One Scholar. In ancient China, the Number One Scholar was the person who scored the highest in a national examination conducted by the emperor. As the story goes, a young man, having become Number One Scholar, went back to his hometown to look for a wife. Much to his surprise, his parents had already chosen one for him in his absence. To make matters worse, she was nearly 10 years older than he was. Before he could recover from the shock of the news, an edict came from the emperor demanding his return to the capital to marry the princess, the emperor's daughter. By the Confucian ethics of Chinese feudal society, he could neither disobey his parents' order nor refuse the emperor's edict. Overcome by the impossible quandary, he dropped dead spitting blood. The following year, a tree peony grew out of his tomb whose flowers were the red color of the uniform worn by Number One Scholars. This cultivar became known as the "Zhuang Yuan Hong" (Number One Scholar flower).
There is another cultivar known as the "Queen of Tree Peonies" whose flowers are a beautiful purple color. During the Tang Dynasty (618AD-907AD), an Emperor issued an edict requiring all officials above the third grade to wear purple uniforms matching the flower.
I love peonies for their fragrance and the way the petals unfurl so delicately. I love to catch these flowers just as they open, the slightly ruffled petals still half folded over as though holding some long-held secret. My favorite peonies are the tree peonies (Paenioa suffruticosa), and some of the most beautiful ones I've seen are part of the 9/11 Peonies Monument, a collection of 300 specimens given to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in 2002 by the Japanese town of Yatsuka-Cho.