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Peonies in for the season

Florist Yu Seung-jae talks about unique charms of many brides’ favorite flower

Florist Yu Seung-jae says she loves all kinds of flowers, but it seems she’s developed a special attachment to peonies.

“Peonies are very special,” Yu says, after giving a flower arrangement class at Bicena, a stylish restaurant specializing in modern Korean cuisine in Hannam-dong, Seoul.

“Not everyone likes flowers. I’ve in fact met people who don’t like them. But it is very hard to find people ― regardless of whether they like flowers or not ― who don’t find peonies beautiful.”

It is a warm Wednesday afternoon, and the restaurant is filled with sunshine and the soft, fluffy blooms. Yu’s flower class was part of “Wedding Blossom,” a collaborative, one-time project by Yu’s flower shop Helena Flower & Garden, hanbok designer Kim Young-jin, Bicena and prominent traditional Korean pottery manufacturer KwangJuYo Group.

It is no surprise Yu chose peonies, which are in season just now, for the wedding-themed project: The flower is a favorite of many brides worldwide. The blousy, feminine bud ― famously a muse for Renoir’s paintings ― is romantically scented, symbolizes a happy marriage and prosperity, and most importantly, makes great bouquets. 
Florist Yu Seung-jae (center) gives a flower arrangement lesson using peonies at Bicena, a modern Korean restaurant, in Hannam-dong, Seoul, on May 22. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)
Florist Yu Seung-jae (center) gives a flower arrangement lesson using peonies at Bicena, a modern Korean restaurant, in Hannam-dong, Seoul, on May 22. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

“Peonies look great in all colors,” Yu says. “But I personally think that in white, they are just perfect for wedding bouquets. They look so pure and innocent. White peonies look good with any bride, in any dress, in any style.”

Yu says a bouquet of peonies is a “privilege” that is only given to brides who have May and June weddings. They have a fairly short season ― early May to late June ― and therefore get hard to find and pricey in the off-season.

“But again, that is why they remain so special,” Yu says.

There are other reasons why Yu loves the flower so much: its ability to heal and its strength.

“Whenever I work with peonies, I think of the Korean four-character idiom ‘Oe-yoo-nae-gang,’ which translates to ‘an iron hand in a velvet glove,’” Yu says.

“Peonies have a lot of petals ― a lot more than most other flowers. And the petals are extremely thin and delicate. Looking at the petals, one may think that peonies are rather vulnerable. But each peony’s got a very strong stem that holds its petals all together. It’s got a very strong core, and has a lot of strength inside. And that’s what draws me to them.”

Aside from their stunning looks, the peony is known for its supposed medicinal qualities. Its dangling roots are noted for their ability to relax the muscles and cleanse the blood. In Asian medicine, especially, the roots have been used to treat conditions such as night sweats, sores and abdominal pain.

“It’s interesting because for florists, peonies are one of the most beautiful flowers to work with,” Yu says. “But for local herb experts, they are a medicinal ingredient. They are useful in so many ways and have been adored by so many people in Asia ― as much as they have been in the West ― for a long time.”

Though they are ideal for special occasions such as weddings, peonies are also great for your living room or kitchen. Yu says if you don’t have a lot of experience arranging flowers, start by placing peonies of the same hue ― the most popular are white and pink ― together.

“But I would get adventurous with peonies even if you don’t have a lot of experience with flowers,” Yu says. “It’s one of the very few flowers that mix very well with its kind in other hues. For example, a crisp white peony would go very well with soft pink peonies, as well as peonies with red hues. But other flowers, such as roses, don’t always work well like that.”

Yu also advises getting peonies that have not fully bloomed. “The way peonies bloom and fall is very dramatic,” Yu says. “Each stage ― including the very last one where its petals fall off completely ― is very beautiful in its own, unique way. Enjoy the flower as its beautiful petals open up into a cotton ball of a bloom and eventually fall in a very different yet serene form. Give them a lot of water ― they need it more than you think.”

By Claire Lee (