Letters of Life

A Paean to the Peony

The bridesmaid’s posy was one of peonies. Big white powder puffs which, as the evening aged, gracefully unfurled their tissue-thin petals like the petticoats worn by a shepherdess.

Peony Puffs

Did you know that the peony is named after Paeon (also spelled Paean), a student of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing? According to Greek legend, Asclepius became jealous of his pupil and Zeus saved Paeon from the wrath of Asclepius by turning him into the peony flower.

The peony is enormously popular in China and Japan, and interestingly, is the state flower of Indiana in the United States, where I studied. I first saw the peony close up in the yards in my neighbourhood where I lived in Vancouver for one short year. These bloomed in bushes by the fences which I passed every day as I walked the children to school, or to the supermarket. You could stroke the large flowers and bring them up to your nose for a whiff of the peony’s beguiling and delicately sweet scent.

It was love at first sight. Reminiscent of the rose, the peony is more gigantic and lush. A single bloom is an overabundance, it seems, of plume-shaped petals which jealously guard the yellow center like a well-kept secret.

The scent, though light and elusive, I remember as distinct from the heaviness of the jasmine, the sharp tones of lavender, the gravitas of the rose. To smell a peony is to merely get a whiff of feminine allure so evanescent you want to take in another breath.

I know I should write my own ode to the peony. Another day perhaps. This one is written by American poet Mary Oliver.

Peonies

This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises,
as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers

and they open–
pools of lace,
white and pink–
and all day the black ants climb over them,

boring their deep and mysterious holes
into the curls,
craving the sweet sap,
taking it away

to their dark, underground cities–
and all day
under the shifty wind,
as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies,
and tip their fragrance to the air,
and rise,
their red stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness
gladly and lightly,
and there it is again–
beauty the brave, the exemplary,

blazing open.
Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
and softly,
and exclaiming of their dearness,
fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
their eagerness
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
nothing, forever?
— Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press)

What is your favourite flower? Why? What are some of your favourite memories associated with it?

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