Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Afterlife of a Peony

In the pantheon of the world’s greatest plants, the Peony must surely be one of the best. And certainly, if you were to displease the Gods atop Mount Olympus, you could do worse then be turned into the Peony. For then you would be truly immortal!
The story of the Peony in Greek mythology climaxes in a real clash of titans, and while Paeon, after whom the Peony is named, lost his dispute on earth, he certainly emerges triumphant in the afterlife.
According to legend, Paeon was a lowly shepherd who tended sheep on the foothills of Mt. Olympus. However, he had an overwhelming interest in herbal and plant remedies, and in due course became a noted medicine man. He soon became apprenticed to Asclepius, one of the greatest healers of the Ancient world, who, as it turns out, was also a son of Apollo. A part of the Greek mythology relates that Leto, one of Zeus’ wives and goddess of the moon came down to earth an showed to Paeon that certain parts of a plant growing on the lowlands bordering Mt. Olympus were highly valuable as a medicine. Through his experiments with the curative powers of Peony plant parts, he was able to prepare some medicines with analgesic and sedative attributes. In time, the medicine Paeon prepared became to be in great demand as women found that it could alleviate the pain of childbirth.  Paeon’s fame spread throughout Greece, and his services came to be in great demand, even in the courts of the ruling class in Athens. Paeon went on to become a noted physician and is mentioned in The Iliad by Homer as being able to staunch the flow of blood from grave wounds incurred on the battlefields of the ubiquitous Greek wars, and thereby saving many lives.
As Paeon’s fame spread, it really irked his mentor, and Asclepius eventually became so jealous that he plotted to murder the contender to his position. As so often happens in Greek mythology, this dispute came to the attention of the gods who sought to resolve the conflict.
Asclepius, himself a demi-god, and therefore immune to Olympian justice, could not suffer the wrath of one of the God as it would lead to a clash of Titans. Yet Paeon had endeared himself to the deities, and to Zeus in particular, who, not wanting to see this popular physician murdered, turned him into the plant that bears his name to this day;Paeonia or the Peony.
Today, in our world of cut flowers, Asclepias might be good for attracting butterflies, but the Peony reigns as one of the supreme flowers of all time, tempting humans and healing hearts.

So much for Greek mythology!
Nonetheless, the flower goes through a stunning metamorphosis during life; from the tight, small buds, which unfurl into absolutely magnificent flowers. And even approaching their final senescence, just as I was about to throw out the shattering blooms, I found an intrinsic beauty in their calyces.
I stripped all the petals away, until the hardy green calyx and some firm sepals remained, yielding an inflorescence that resembled a cross between a green helleborus and a delicate mountain orchid.

Images (From Top to Bottom) :
Calyces of Duchesse de Nemours
Calyces of Edibus
Corona of Edibus
Two views of calyces and very strong inner tepals of Baroness Schroeder
Calyx of Festiva Maxinma

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