The peonies are starting to come out in my garden this week, and I know from experience that this heralds a period of early summer storms – every year, my poor red peony gets its petals bashed off by torrential rain as soon as it flowers! Luckily, the storms have usually passed by the time the slightly later pink and white varieties open. They have a short blooming period in early summer, only 7-10 days, but their beauty and usefulness makes them well worth the space.
Did you know they are edible? The petals, seeds and roots can all be eaten, and were a popular ingredient in mediaeval cookery for those that could afford it. The seeds were used as a spice, and peony water, an infusion of the petals, was drunk. Why not try it? Make some delicious and colourful peony petal tea by infusing some petals in boiling water for 10 minutes. The petals can also be added to salads, punches, lemonades and cocktails, used as a garnish, or used to colour jams and jellies. (You will probably not get seeds on your garden variety peony, as they are usually double petalled, and the bees cannot pollinate them.)
Peonies have become a buzz ingredient in commercial skin formulas, especially those for mature skin. They a chemical called paeoniflorin, which research suggests might reduce wrinkles. You can try making your own peony petal infused oil to use neat on your skin or add to your moisturisers. (Fill a jar with petals, pour vegetable oil over, and leave for 2 weeks before straining.) Alternatively, make a skin exfoliant scrub by putting some sugar or salt in a blender with a few peony petals, and giving them a short blend. You can add a few drops of your favourite skin oil to this if you like. Drop a few fresh or dried peony petals into your bath for a relaxing soak that will soothe your skin.
Peonies have been used used medicinally since ancient times. In Chinese traditional herbalism, peony root (Bai Shao) is still used in the treatment of a variety of conditions, including gout, menstrual cramps, migraine and hepatitis.
In Europe, the mediaeval monks grew them in their herb gardens, while the English herbalist Culpepper stated that the ‘male’ peony could cure falling sickness and the ‘female’ could drive away nightmares. Indeed, over262 compounds have been obtained so far from the peony, and it has been found to have antioxidant, antitumor, antipathogenic, analgesic, hepatoprotective, anti-inflammatory and immunomodulative actions. A decoction of the dried and powdered roots may be used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, muscle spasms and menstrual cramps, mild depression and anxiety.
It’s connection with healing goes deep. The common name peony comes from the Greek Paeon who was a pupil of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. However, Asclepius became jealous of his clever pupil and sought to kill him, but Zeus rescued the youth by changing him into a peony flower. Sometimes, however, Paeon is used as an epithet of the sun god Apollo, who had aspects as a healer god as the dispeller of darkness and negativity, or of Asclepius himself. The peony was certainly associated both with healing and protection from evil. The ancients believed that it shone at night giving protection to shepherds and their flocks, keeping the harvest from injury, driving away evil spirits and preventing storms. However, much like the mandrake, its collection was surrounded by taboos and danger. Pliny said “that of necessity it must be gathered in the night for if any man shall pluck the fruit in the daytime being seen of the woodpecker he be in danger of to lose his eyes“.
In the mediaeval period, the peony was used to ward off evil in its various guises. The seeds steeped in hot wine were believed to prevent nightmares, or strung onto a necklace to ward off evil spirits and madness. The plants were often grown near the door of cottages as they were considered to be able to drive away witches and storms.
In your magical practice, use peony in incenses, potions, and spells of protection, or those used in invocations of healing and the gods of healing. It is ruled by the Sun and the element of fire.
CAUTION: Peony is generally considered safe, though an overdose can lead to a stomach upset. It should not be taken by pregnant or lactating women; peony is an emmenagogue i.e.. it is capable of stimulating menstruation, so there is also a possibility that taking peony can cause uterine contractions, which can lead to a miscarriage. Do not take if you are on blood thinning medication, or for two weeks before a scheduled surgery.