For a brief window in the spring, gardeners can enjoy the colorful and voluptuous blooms of the peony. Highly fragrant and highly showy, these blooms are a treasure among home landscapes. Yet one feature of these plants is often overlooked: They are edible. In fact, not only can the petals be used for flavoring drinks, topping salads and making jams, peonies have a long medicinal history, as well.
Know Your Peonies
Peonies are generally divided in two groups: herbaceous peonies (the bushy types that die back to the ground every year) and tree peonies (which drop their leaves in the winter while the woody stems stay in tact above ground). In total, there are about 33 species of peony, some wild and others cultivated.
The peonies you’ll probably find growing in your garden in the herbaceous group are the common peony (Paeonia officinalis) and the Chinese peony (Paeonia lactiflora). You’re most likely to find in the tree group Paeonia suffruticosa and Paeonia delavayi. Peonies come in an array of colors with petals shaped in single, double or semi-double layers, offering various degrees of “poofiness.”
When it comes to ingesting peonies, it’s the Chinese peony (P. lactiflora)—known as Bái Sháo in Traditional Chinese Medicine—that has a long recorded history of medicinal use dating back a couple of thousand years. That said, all peonies seem to offer some degree of edibility and medicinal qualities. Mainly known as a woman’s tonic, the root of the Chinese peony would be dug in autumn from plants 4 to 5 years old, boiled, and the bark removed. The long list of medicinal benefits includes antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, analgesic, hormone regulation and fever reducer.
Some Have Said They’re Poisonous
Some accounts of the peony say that it is poisonous without any context for explaining its effects. Certain state poison control centers do say that the plant can cause skin rashes or nausea, vomiting or diarrhea when ingested in large quantities, while others do not include the peony on the list of toxic plants. As a precaution, I would not ingest an entire salad made of nothing but peony petals or munch on blossoms the same way you would, say, a bowl full of fruit. However, I would be fine using the petals as seasonal flavoring.
On the other hand, peonies are poisonous to cats, dogs and horses, resulting in vomiting, diarrhea or depression, according to the ASPCA. Please avoid sharing a peony-flavored treat with your pets.
The Plants for a Future database offers a edibility and medicinal rating for various peony species. It also includes any known hazards. Consult the database for concerns about the plants in your garden.
How to Use Peonies
As with all plants, avoid using peonies that have been sprayed with chemicals or have been growing close to a busy road. Harvest blossoms in late morning, once dew has dissipated but water content of the plant is at its peak. Choose the most fragrant blossoms that are free of disease or insect damage, pull off the petals, and gently but thoroughly rinse before use.
The flavor of peony blossoms has been described as that similar to a peach or strawberry. Use the petals to garnish a salad or flavor a spritzer or lemonade. Peonies can also be simply enjoyed by parboiling and adding a bit of sugar, or you can infuse them into a simple syrup to flavor cocktails, desserts and salad dressings. If you want to up your peony game, here are some additional recipes you can try:
Peony blossoms enjoy only a brief window of time before their blooms close up for the season, so if you can spare their ornamental value, harvest a few and get eating.