The peony is significant both historically and mythologically, and thus is tied to many different meanings and symbols. Common peony meanings include romance, prosperity, good fortune, a happy marriage, riches, honor, and compassion — but peonies can also mean bashfulness.
There are two common myths about the peony. In one, the peony is believed to be named after Paeon, the Greek physician of the gods. According to the legend, Paeon was a student of Aesculapius, the god of medicine. When Paeon used a peony root to heal Pluto — the first time this was tried — Aesculapius became jealous of his talents and tried to kill him. To save Paeon (and show compassion to him), Pluto transformed him into a peony, because he knew it was a flower that people would admire and praise. Thus, one peony meaning is compassion.
In the other myth, the peony is tied to a nymph named Paeonia. Paeonia is beautiful and attracts the attention of Apollo, who begins to flirt with her. When Paeonia realizes that Aphrodite is watching them, she becomes bashful and turns bright red. In anger, Aphrodite transforms the nymph into a red peony. This is how the peony came to symbolize bashfulness.
As the first myth shows, peonies were valued for their medicinal uses. In ancient and medieval times their roots and seeds were believed to cure over twenty diseases including epilepsy and snake bites. In England, children wore peony root necklaces to prevent seizures and help teething pain.
Peonies are native to China. They are highly valued there, and are often referred to as the “king of flowers”. They were the national flower prior to 1929, when they were replaced by the plum tree. Peonies have been popular in China since the Sui dynasty. During the Sui and Tang dynasties they were planted at the Imperial Palace. Because of this, peony symbolism also includes nobility, honor, and wealth.
One of the most popular cities in China to see peonies is Luoyang, which is sometimes referred to as the City of Peony. It houses the National Peony Garden, which has over 100 different kinds of peonies and hosts an annual peony festival.
There are many superstitions around peonies. Some believe that if your peony bush is full of flowers, it will bring good luck, but if the leaves dry up and the flowers fade or become discolored it’s a sign that you should be prepared for disaster. An odd number of blooms is also considered bad luck.
The peony is the state flower of Indiana. It is also given for twelfth wedding anniversaries because the peony symbolizes honor, fortune, and a happy relationship.
Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences by Corra Linn Daniels