The peony or paeony is a flowering plant in the genus Paeonia, the only genus in the family Paeoniaceae. Peonies are native to Asia, Europe and Western North America. Scientists differ on the number of species that can be distinguished, ranging from 25 to 40, although the current consensus is 33 known species. The relationships between the species need to be further clarified.
Most are herbaceous perennial plants 0.25–1 metre (1–3 ft) tall, but some are woody shrubs 0.25–3.5 metres (1–11 ft) tall. They have compound, deeply lobed leaves and large, often fragrant flowers, in colors ranging from purple and pink to red, white or yellow, in late spring and early summer. The flowers have a short blooming season, usually only 7–10 days.
Peonies are among the most popular garden plants in temperate regions. Herbaceous peonies are also sold as cut flowers on a large scale, although generally only available in late spring and early summer. An emerging source of peonies in mid to late summer is the Alaskan market. Unique growing conditions due to long hours of sunlight create availability from Alaska when other sources have completed harvest.
All Paeoniaceae are deciduous perennial herbs or shrubs, with thick storage roots and thin roots for gathering water and minerals. Some species are caespitose (tufted), because the crown produces adventitious buds, while others have stolons. They have rather large compound leaves without glands and stipules, and with anomocytic stomata. In the woody species the new growth emerges from scaly buds on the previous flush or from the crown of the rootstock. The large bisexual flowers are mostly single at the end of the stem. In P. emodi, P. lactiflora, P. veitchii and many of the cultivars these contributed to, few additional flowers develop in the axils of the leaves. Flowers close at night or when the sky is overcast. Each flower is subtended by a number of bracts, that may form a sort of involucre, has 3-7 tough free sepals and mostly 5-8, but occasionally up to 13 free petals. These categories however are intergrading, making it difficult to assign some of them, and the number of these parts may vary. Within are numerous (50–160) free stamens, with anthers fixed at their base to the filaments, and are sagittate in shape, open with longitudal slits at the outer side and free pollen grains which have three slits or pores and consist of two cells. Within the circle of stamens is a more or less prominent, lobed disc, which is presumed not to excrete nectar. Within the disk is a varying number (1-15) of separate carpels, which have a very short style and a decurrent stigma. Each of these develops into a dry fruit (which is called a follicle), which opens with a lengthwise suture and each of which contains one or a few large fleshy seeds. The annual growth is predetermined: if the growing tip of a shoot is removed, no new buds will develop that season.
Ancient Chinese texts mention the peony was used for flavoring food. Confucius (551–479 BC) is quoted to have said: "I eat nothing without its sauce. I enjoy it very much, because of its flavor." Peonies have been used and cultivated in China since early history. Ornamental cultivars were created from plants cultivated for medicine in China as of the sixth and seventh century. Peonies became particularly popular during the Tang dynasty, when they were grown in the imperial gardens. In the tenth century the cultivation of peonies spread through China, and the seat of the Sung dynasty, Luoyang, was the centre for its cultivation, a position it still holds today. A second centre for peony cultivation developed during the Qing dynasty in Cáozhōu, now known as He Ze. Both cities still host annual peony exhibitions and state-funded peony research facilities. Before the tenth century, P. lactiflora was introduced in Japan, and over time many varieties were developed both by self fertilisation and crossbreeding, particularly during the eighteenth to twentieth centuries (middle Edo to early Shōwa periods). During the 1940s Toichi Itoh succeeded in crossing tree peonies and herbaceous peonies and so created a new class of so-called intersectional hybrids. Although P. officinalis and its cultivars were grown in Europe from the fifteenth century on, originally also for medicinal purposes, intensive breeding started only in the nineteenth century when P. lactiflora was introduced from its native China to Europe. The tree peony was introduced in Europe and planted in Kew Gardens in 1789. The main centre of peony breeding in Europe has been in the United Kingdom, and particularly France. Here, breeders like Victor Lemoine and François Félix Crousse selected many new varieties, mainly with P. lactiflora, such as "Avant Garde" and "Le Printemps". The Netherlands is the largest peony cut flower producing country with about 50 million stems each year, with "Sarah Bernhardt" dominating the sales with over 20 million stems.


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