The hidden goodness of the peony
The peony is one of the more endearing and enduring of garden plants, beloved for its breathtaking, full blossoms, and because of its sturdy growth habit. It can live on for decades, with divisions often being passed down to generations of gardeners.
An herbaceous plant, the genus 'Paeonia' has over 30 species and hundreds of cultivars. The range of flower shapes can vary from single petals arranged around a delicate fluffy center to a dense globular form reminiscent of old-fashioned roses. The blooms, which are fragrant without being overpowering, appear in late spring through early summer. They create a beautiful display and, depending on the cultivar (and the weather), can last for over a month. The remaining leaves create a lovely textural element in the garden for the remainder of the season.
Peonies are perennials, growing best in Zones 3-7, where temperatures are cold enough during winter to induce dormancy. They have a root system of tubers -- a type of swollen rhizomes -- that store nutrients to survive dormancy and regenerate growth in spring. Much the same way that we rely on God, yet also must do for and take care of ourselves.
The peony is native to Asia (Paeonia lactiflora), Europe (Paeonia officinalis), and Western North America (Paeonia brownii). The healing properties of "Paeonia lactiflora," refined by the Chinese, have been used medicinally for centuries, and the abstractions from the peony tuberous roots are still used today as a treatment for an array of ailments: as an analgesic, anticoagulant, antispasmodic, for the reduction of menstrual cramps, and as an antioxidant to name a few.
During the Middle Ages, the Benedictines, thanks to their libraries and manuscripts, were held as the repository of herbal knowledge; they brought the peony into the monastery gardens as a medicinal plant and to decorate the altar. This is how the plant earned its moniker as the Benedictine Rose. In the 12th century, the great Benedictine (and Doctor of the church) Saint Hildegard of Bingen also wrote in her herbals of the peony's many therapeutic uses.
The peony's beauty is not only in its flowers, but also hidden in its physiology. The curative nature of the plant reflects the healing action of God. The peony's symbolism, "Love of God," has a dual expression of love: first for when, in his love for us, he sent his Holy Spirit to guide and console us; and secondly, for our own love and gratitude to God for having gifted us with his mercies and consolations. Through the love of God for us and ours for him, our souls and bodies are brought to healing and to flourishing.
An Invitatory antiphon reads, "Come let us worship God who brings the world and its wonders from darkness into light." How wondrous it is that the once hidden medicinal properties placed within the peony have been brought to light over time. So too, over time, our potential for goodness and holiness is revealed by the light of Christ penetrating our darkness.
Like the peony, our true goodness and purpose have been placed within us at our creation, though hidden from the view of the world. Others observe us, and over time discover that we also possess a healing, restorative nature: love.
And isn't healing an act of love, a restoration of peace? Our willingness to be healed is an act of love for self, and by opening ourselves to accept God's love, we reciprocate his love for us. Once healed, we can become a catalyst of restorative action in a world that casually bypasses the curative love of Christ.
Margaret Rose Realy is a Benedictine Oblate and the author of "A Garden Catechism: 100 Plants in Christian Tradition and How to Grow Them" (OSV, 2022).