The Secret Ingredient
In 1735, a Viennese baroness wrote to the last Medici princess, Anna Maria Luisa de Medici (1669—1743), to thank her for sending a miraculous infant convulsion powder. Anna Maria Luisa’s recipe for infant convulsion powder contained a precipitation of a human skull (of “a man who died violently but was never buried”), a precipitation of “Oriental pearls,” a precipitation of red coral and white coral, as well as yellow amber and peony roots and seeds. While the more outrageous ingredients—the skull and Oriental pearls—stand out, it was actually the use of peony that made Anna Maria Luisa’s powder effective.
In her letter to Anna Maria Luisa, the baroness praised the powder’s effectiveness, stating that the children she treated with it had been so violently taken by convulsions that the attending physicians had “given up on them.” Not only had the “miraculous powder” cured the children, but they remained in perfect health several months later. Well known for her miraculous powder, Anna Maria Luisa strategically distributed it to influential individuals and courts across Europe. As a result, she created valuable socio-political alliances to protect The Grand Duchy of Tuscany as the end of the Medici dynasty neared.
The Popularity of Peonies
Peonies are not typically associated with medicine, since they have long been coveted for their beauty. In fact, peonies were first cultivated for their attractiveness and fragrance in China more than 1,400 years ago and became especially popular under the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE). In the Tang imperial gardens, tree (or moutan) peonies reigned as the “king of flowers” and symbolized happiness, wealth, and prosperity. We can see the association of peonies with wealth and class in a rare Tang scroll painting that depicts five ladies of the court and one maidservant. The rank and prestige of each lady is shown by their scale relative to one another as well as by the lavish peonies that adorn their hair. As the popularity of peonies grew in China, so too did their varieties, as horticulturalists selected, hybridized, bred, and eventually grafted peonies for their fragrance, petal color, petal number, and size.
The center of imperial peony cultivation was in Luoyang, where there were peony festivals and competitions, gardens devoted solely to peonies, and even a peony research center. This led to a plethora of ornamental peony cultivars as peony breeding became an artform. More than 200 peony cultivars were described during the Song Dynasty (960–1279 CE); today, China has more than 1,000 cultivars.
While peonies have a long history of appreciation and cultivation as ornamental garden plants in Chinese as well as Islamic gardens, in western Europe they mainly were valued for their utility. Over the course of the sixteenth century that changed, when Ottoman floriculture introduced numerous ornamental flowers to the gardens of Europe, including hyacinths, narcissi, peonies, and most famously, tulips. It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that Europeans would begin intensively breeding ornamental peonies.
In 1789, famed British naturalist Sir Joseph Banks acquired a “moutan peony tree” (Paeonia lactiflora) from Canton, China, through his connections with the British East India Company. Surviving the arduous journey to Britain, it was planted in the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew. Other peonies from China soon followed, ushering in something of a peony craze in Europe as, thanks to centuries of cultivation, Chinese peonies were larger, fuller, and more fragrant than native European varieties. Peonies became increasingly popular as French, English, and American horticulturists began developing ornamental varieties of their own from these exotic imported peony cultivars.
As a Chinese botanical export, eastern ornamental peonies, as well as the new herbaceous and tree hybrids created from them in Europe, carried connotations of the “exotic Orient” and became a popular subject in nineteenth-century art. The depiction of peonies in nineteenth-century French paintings, however, does more than simply signify the exotic or differentiate Occident and Orient. For example, in Frédéric Bazille’s Young Woman with Peonies (see below), the foreign provenance of ornamental peonies is emphasized by the Black model who arranges the blooms in an “Oriental” vase. Notably, Bazille pairs the peonies with irises, France’s national flower. Once new and exotic, ornamental peony cultivars had become a product of cultural hybridity, simultaneously signaling the plant’s eastern origin as well as the new varieties that were being developed in France.
Today, peonies remain one of the most sought-after ornamental flowers in the world. Thanks to their abundant delicate petals, peonies often adorn gardens and homes, and are popular for wedding bouquets and floral arrangements. While peonies have long been, and continue to be, a coveted ornamental plant, what may surprise you is that they also have an equally long history—over two millennia—as a powerful medicinal therapeutic.