The Happy Mystery of Why We Love Peonies

People love flowers. But how did human beings come to adore blooming plants that didn’t serve a practical purpose, like food?

Floral affection endures today and one can measure it in Google searches. Every month, in half a million searches, people ask questions and seek information about peonies. It’s a flower with a fervent fan base as any member of the “Peonies Love of My Life” Facebook group can tell you.

Online searchers want to know how to grow fluffy, over-the-top peonies, how to keep them from flopping over in the garden and will they be available for an August wedding? They want to know the difference between herbaceous peonies (most common), tree peonies and intersectional peonies.

And perhaps most of all they want to know what is going on with the ants. If you’ve ever waited for a peony to bloom, you probably saw the tiny crawlers pacing the surface of tight-fisted peony buds, but why?

We’ll be answering all those questions here on the blog in the run up to Styer’s Peonies Festival of the Peony, May 15-31 at the farm in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

Let’s start with why people love peonies. It’s simple. Research -- real research! -- shows that flowers make people happy.

In 2005, flower power researcher and Rutgers professor Jeannette Haviland-Jones did an experiment to see which of three gifts would be most pleasing to recipients. The ruse was that the gift was a thank you for their participation in a study, but the real study was how they would react to one of three gifts: a decorative candle, a fruit basket and a bouquet of fresh flowers.

Research assistants hand-delivered the gifts and paid close attention to the recipient’s facial expressions. Of course, many smiled, but the gift-givers were counting the number of Duchenne smiles, also known as real smiles that engage not just the mouth, but crinkle the eyes, too. The study’s results made Haviland-Jones smile and also shake her head. One hundred percent of those who received flowers lit up with a true, Duchenne smile.

“When I saw that every person who got the flowers responded with the Duchenne smile, I thought, No, this doesn’t happen,” she told Rutgers Magazine. “In the emotions lab, you never get a 100 percent response unless you’re dropping a snake on people, which gives you a nice 100 percent fear response. But, happy? No.”

Scientist E.O. Wilson, famous for his scholarship about ants, suggested that humans learned to like flowers because they’re a marker for fruit. But Haviland-Jones said that didn’t add up because people don’t prefer fruit blossoms over other kinds of flowers, like peonies, dahlias and roses.

Along with her husband, an evolutionary biologist, she came to another hypothesis: that flowers and human beings evolved alongside one another and developed something like a friendship.

“The flowers we didn’t pull up from our food gardens were the ones that made us feel good in some way. We moved from tolerating them to liking them to picking out the ones we really liked and planting them and moving them around,” Haviland-Jones said.

Flowers, like pets, reduce stress so they might deserve to be called the “pets of the plant world,” she said.

With their color and their fragrance, their patterns and their symmetry, flowers settled in beside us long ago and keep us company still.