Paeonia lactiflora: "physician with milk white flowers"
The ornamental Paeonia lactiflora that has been grown in China since the 7th century was bred from medicinal plants. Paeonia derives from Ancient Greek παιωνία (paiōnía, “peony”), which comes from Παιών (Paiṓn, “Paean, the physician of the gods”), and is etymologically related to παιών (paiṓn, “a physician”). Ancient Chinese records indicate that species of Paeonia have been of culinary use dating back to the 6th century BCE.
Renowned for their enormous globes of thickly petaled flowers, out of the hundreds of Paeonia lactiflora cultivars, only a handful produce a signature peony fragrance. Some have interesting rosy and yeasty notes, while others have little perfume, and there are those that give off an acrid, sour odor. My family gardens have forty year old heirloom plants. These my parents grew from cuttings of my grandparents' and great grandparents' World War I "victory gardens." Of these, the most stunningly fragranced comes from the oldest plants of a French white peony whose cultivation originates nearly 200 years ago. It is double flowered, with feathery white petals shading into pale green stamens that have been modified into additional petals. Fresh from the vine pea pods, dirt, crisp lettuce, spring rain, raw rhubarb, nectarine, green apple, bell pepper, and mayonnaise combine in an inimitable bouquet that is oddly clean, delicate, and powdery. A pompom of an aroma whose subtlety belies its irreproducible complexity.
In the past 6 years I have sometimes incorporated several peony breeds into my enfleurage, but since 2018 I have exclusively used the French white peony. Because of their brief blooming period, the process involves working around the weather, first and foremost. Peonies must be both early in their opening and completely dry. They tend to trap rain in their densely packed petals, so if a storm is coming and there are peonies ready, I drop everything to harvest. First I cut the flowers, each with a decent stem length and toss them onto the grass. Ants love peonies. This gives them a chance to crawl off. Then I shake the flowers by their stems to remove any hangerson. Finally, all the petals and sepals must be lifted and separated to expose hiding ants. After a thorough inspection, I cut the stem close and trim any leaves growing at the base of the flower. Now the peony is ready to go into the collection basket and onto the enfleurage pommade. And repeat for each individual blossom.