florapedia / flower-facts / peony meaning

August 15, 2016

History and Meaning of Peonies

While their growing season may be brief, nothing says springtime like blossoming peonies! The big, pastel flowers grow in large bushes and give off a lovely floral scent. Nothing will lift someone’s spirits or bring a smile to your loved one’s face like a big bouquet of peonies.

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The peony has two opposing myths that account for its contradicting meanings. In one the origin of compassion can be found; in the other the more negative connotation that developed in the Victorian age is displayed.

In one tale, the peonies get their name from the Greek word Paeon. In Greek mythology, Paeon was the physician to the gods who angered his teacher Asclepius after he extracted a milky liquid from the root of a peony that cured Pluto. Asclepius was the god of medicine and healing. He threatened to kill Paeon out of jealousy because he was outsmarting his teacher. Zeus saved him by turning him into a beautiful flower, the peony.

Another myth links the name peony back to a nymph named Paeonia whose beauty attracted the attention of Apollo. Out of spite, Aphrodite turned her into a peony. This legend is likely what led to the flower’s meaning of poor luck in the Victorian age.

Meanings in different cultures:

  • With its importance as the official emblem of China, the flower plays a large role in holidays and traditions like Chinese New Year. The Chinese name for “most beautiful” translates to peony.

  • The peony has a strong tie to royalty and honor in Eastern culture.

  • In contrast, the peony gained a reputation for bashfulness because legend had it that nymphs would hide their naked forms by turning into peonies.

  • In the Victorian ages, it was considered unlucky to dig up a peony. If you did, Victorians believed fairies would curse you.

  • The peony is also the Indiana state flower.



Peonies have been growing in Eastern gardens for over 4,000 years. As the imperial symbol, the flowers were spread across the country as different emperors moved their courts. They reached Japan around the beginning of the eighth century. They were also revered for their beauty and further hybridized.

In Europe, herbaceous peonies are a part of ancient Greek mythology and are highly regarded for their medicinal properties.  

The root, bark, seed and flowers were all believed to have medicinal uses in eastern Asia and Europe. Ancient Greeks and Christians from the Middle Ages believed peonies were a symbol for healing. They were used to treat stomach pains, bladder issues, jaundice and even nightmares. 


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