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  • Martin Castle

... the nodding peony flower ...

August Renoir c1880

I heard the farm cocks crowing, loud, and faint, and thin,

When hooded night was going and one clear planet winked:

I heard shrill notes begin down the spired wood distinct,

When cloudy shoals were chinked and gilt with fires of day.

White-misted was the weald; the lawns were silver-grey;

The lark his lonely field for heaven had forsaken;

And the wind upon its way whispered the boughs of may,

And touched the nodding peony-flowers to bid them waken.

Siegfried Sassoon

I don't know when the peony flower entered my consciousness - possibly discovering an abandoned cottage on the edge of some school grounds. There was no roof and the windows were disintegrating but the garden still showed a semblance of cultivation. Among the tall grasses and the invading brambles was a bank of the most amazing heavy-headed deeply red flowers - peonies. I have to admit to taking one without asking! My research suggested that they were very adverse to being moved but if you could nurture them through the tough time they would flower forever. I don't know if it still lives in Bedford - I hope it does.

Slowly the garden here in NN is accumulating both tree and herbaceous peonies and they are just coming to the point where they will 'pop' and the tight green ball with a tip suggesting the colour to come will reveal itself. I have a particularly majestic yellow variety that I pray will emerge in a week of little to no wind or rain so it lasts as long as possible. This plant was purchased at Great Dixter - Christopher Lloyd's garden in Sussex. When all this lock down stuff is over I urge you to visit if anywhere near

The peony is named after Paeon (also spelled Paean), a student of Asclepius the Greek god of medicine and healing. Paeon treated both Apollo and Hades. When Asclepius became jealous of his pupil, Zeus saved Paeon from the wrath of his teacher by turning him into the peony flower.

The peony originates in Asia and is important in both China and Japan. Ancient Chinese texts mention the peony was used for flavoring food and Confucius (551–479 BC) is quoted to have said: "I eat nothing without its sauce. I enjoy it very much, because of its flavour."

I'm not so taken with pink peonies but many consider them to be the best colour. Whatever the colour, it is always sad when the magnificent flowers begin to fade and wilt. Fear not you can make them last all summer by making a delicious peony jelly - yep that's right!


Peony Jelly


4 cups of peony petals (pluck them right before they turn brown)

1 lemon

3 cups of sugar

2 tbsp of powdered pectin


1. Boil the petals in five cups of water, then let them steep overnight.

2. Strain the water from the petals and add three tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice to the liquid. (You can toss the petals at this point.)

3. Bring it to a boil and add the sugar and pectin. Boil again for three minutes, then remove from the stove and let cool for a few hours.

Note: The colour of the petals will influence the richness of the hue and it tastes like a combination of strawberry and peach jelly.

The recipe comes from Lindsey Champion and the photo is of jelly made with pink peonies.

The peony is the traditional floral symbol of China (the Chinese name for Peony even translates to “most beautiful”), the state flower of Indiana, and the 12th wedding anniversary flower. Peonies are known as the flower of riches and honor. With their lush, full, rounded bloom, peonies embody romance and prosperity and are regarded as an omen of good fortune and a happy marriage.

Oddly, it has somewhat of an opposite meaning to Western individuals. Greek myth says that nymphs used to hide their naked forms in Peonies to shield them from prying eyes. This led to the association of Peonies with shamefulness and bashfulness during the Victorian era (can you imagine being locked down for 64 years like the Victorians!). It was considered downright unlucky to dig up a shrub of Peony during the Middle Ages due to associations with less than kind fairies.

The Peony is best known by its scientific name, Paeonia. This is only the name of the genus – individual varieties of Peony feature different individual Latin names. The plant is mainly grown by separating root masses and only sometimes by seed, so breeding can take years to advance even a few generations. You can find out how to grow and look after your peonies by visiting:

Robert Macfarlane's Word of the Day is ...

Fairy Lace - common name of Cow Parsley, aka Queen Anne’s Lace & Mother-Die (this latter name given to dissuade children from picking it, in case they mistook it for toxic hemlock); embroidering hedges & brocading verges now for free with its fine filigree.

ps: apologies, but there was a technical hitch yesterday which meant that the blog was lost and had to be republished. This meant the comments were lost. Thanks Dave and maybe Karl you could re-add your kale crisps recipe.


Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength. “ - Corrie ten Boom
"The best portion of a good man’s life is his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love." - William Wordsworth
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