The International Peony Politics Trip

Peonies are in bloom in my garden now, and they are making me exceptionally happy.

But as I am the type of person who questions her happiness thoroughly whenever it occurs, I began to wonder why. Peonies are pretty of course, but that’s not enough of a reason to feel joy, for me at least.

Digging deeper — well, hitting Wikipedia — revealed that that the peony has  an interesting, international history, rife with political intrigue and controversy.

Ah, my attraction to this bloom instantly made more sense! And I soon realized that I could create a very enjoyable international political peony itinerary. Here’s how it lays out:

Peonies in Alison Wellner's garden

Peonies in Alison Wellner's garden

The first stop would be Greece, as the name “peony” stems from a very early Greek political controversy.  Evidently, the doctor of the Gods, Paeon had angered his mentor. Zeus reached for one of his standard solutions to a diplomatic crisis and turned Paeon into a flower. (Wonder if this would work to stabilize the Euro?)  Hence, Paeon became peony.

Next stop would be China — specifically the city of Luoyang, China’s peony capital.  You may not be aware of this, but the peony is a serious contender for the title of  China’s national flower. The Qing dynasty apparently chose it as Number One Flower — a humiliating defeat for the plum blossom.

Currently, the People’s Republic does not have an official national flower, although the peony was  the people’s choice for national flower in the People’s Republic according to a 1994 opinion poll. The peony was proposed, but the government evidently got distracted by the impending re-absorption of Hong Kong and Macau and the matter never reached a definitive conclusion.

Taiwan has designated the plum blossom as its national flower, a fact which the People’s Republic has pointedly refused to recognize. (Among a few other things regarding Taiwan.)

However much China has dithered, one state in the U.S. heartland acted decisively on the peony issue. In 1957, Indiana declared the peony its official state flower, ditching the zinnia. After your visits to Greece and to China, a trip to a public garden in Indiana will be a soothing, non-political experience.

Or will it? Apparently the peony caused political trouble for the Hoosiers as well.

Peonies in a watering can

When the peony became Indiana’s state flower, it was hoped that its blooms would end the controversy that had roiled the state for more than forty years. In 1913, Indiana elevated the carnation, but demoted it in 1923, because of immigration issues: the carnation was not a native Indiana species.

Then came the tulip tree blossom, which was boring, and so in 1931, Indiana adopted the zinnia.

This put the Hoosiers right back where they started, because like the carnation, the zinnia was a migrant. Besides, some whispered, the only reason the zinnia got the nod was because of a certain, powerful zinnia seed grower.

In politics, it’s always the zinnia seed growers.

Unless it’s the peony growers. In a shift of flower power, the peony became the state flower, edging out the dogwood. Again, there were grumbles about the power of peony grower lobby, and the non-native issue. But evidently the beauty of the peonies makes everybody in Indiana as happy as it makes me, because the issue was dropped and has not been in serious doubt for more than fifty years.





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