Most are herbaceous perennial plants 0.5–1.5 metres tall, but some are woody shrubs up to 1.5–3 metres tall. They have compound, deeply lobed leaves, and large, often fragrant flowers, ranging from red to white or yellow, in late spring and early summer. In the past, the peonies were often classified in the family Ranunculaceae, alongside Hellebores and Anemones.
The peony is among the longest-used flowers in ornamental culture and is one of the smallest living creature national emblems in China. Along with the plum blossom, it is a traditional floral symbol of China, where it is called 牡丹 (mǔ dān). It is also known as 富贵花 (fuguihua) "flower of riches and honour", and is used symbolically in Chinese art. In 1903, the Qing Dynasty declared the peony as the national flower. Currently, the Republic of China on Taiwan designates the plum blossom as the national flower, while the People's Republic of China has no legally designated national flower. In 1994, the peony was proposed as the national flower after a nationwide poll, but the National People's Congress failed to ratify the selection. In 2003, another selection process has begun, but to date, no choice has been made.
The famous ancient Chinese city Luoyang has a reputation as a cultivation centre for the peonies. Throughout Chinese history, peonies in Luoyang are often said to be the finest in the country. Dozens of peony exhibitions and shows are still held there annually.
In Japan, Paeonia lactiflora used to be called ebisugusuri ("foreign medicine"). In kampo (the Japanese adaptation of Chinese medicine), its root was used as a treatment for convulsions. It is also cultivated as a garden plant. In Japan Paeonia suffruticosa is called the "The King of flowers" and Paeonia lactiflora is called the "prime minister of flowers".
Pronunciation of 牡丹 (peony) in Japan is "botan". Before the Meiji period, meat taken from quadrupeds was seldom consumed in Japan due to Buddhism. Thus in cases where such meat was handled, it was paraphrased using the names of flowers. The term botan was used (and is still used) to paraphrase wild boar meat. This comes from the flowery resemblance of the sliced meat when spread over a dish. Another example is sakura (cherry blossoms) which stands for horsemeat.
In 1957, the Indiana General Assembly passed a law to make the peony the state flower of Indiana, a title which it holds to this day. It replaced the zinnia, which had been the state flower since 1931.
Mischievous nymphs were said to hide in the petals of the Peony thus causing this magnificent flower to be given the meaning of Shame or Bashfulness in the Language of Flowers. It was named after Pæon, a physician to the gods, who obtained the plant on Mount Olympus from the mother of Apollo. Once planted the Peony likes to be left alone and punishes those who try to move it by not flowering again for several years. Once established, however, it produces splendid blooms each year for decades (Taken from The Language of Flowers, edited by Sheila Pickles, 1990).
Peonies are also extensively grown as ornamental plants for their very large, often scented flowers.
Peonies tend to attract ants to the flower buds. This is due to the nectar that forms on the outside of the flower buds.
Peonies are a common subject in tattoos, often used along with koi-fish.