As far as availability and ease of cultivation, peony is a popular and hardy garden flower. We're talking about Paeonia lactiflora and p. officinalis, the varieties commonly found growing in flower gardens in the United States. For more info, I wrote an article on the different species that can be found here- it also covers more information on the forgotten history of this plant.
Peony is a very long lived perennial and can be cultivated from seed or by root division. If you ask around, it should be fairly easy to find someone who would be more than happy to share some peony plants with you. They really do have a cult following among gardeners.
Peony has a fairly wide range of traditional herbal uses, as well. It's valued as a women's herb, as an antispasmodic and nervine for all ages of both genders, and was used for relief of pain and inflammation. Add that several, more specialized species of peony (such as Moutan peony) were prized for high fevers and recovery from traumatic injury, and it proves to be an excellent addition to the garden for preppers.
Here's a brief run down I've compiled from various sources. Check the resource list at the bottom if you're interested in more info- I've pulled from historic sources as well as modern ones.
- aches and pains from flu (early American herbalism)
- pertussis (early American herbalism)
- high fevers with extreme fluid loss from sweating (Traditional Chinese Medicine)
- hemorrhagic fevers (Traditional Chinese Medicine- they favor Moutan peony for this over p. lactiflora or p. officinalis)
- acute aches and pains (Traditional Chinese Medicine)
- muscle spasms (Traditional Chinese Medicine)
- irregular periods, especially with cramping and heavy bleeding (Traditional Chinese Medicine)
- inflammatory states associated with autoimmune conditions (Traditional Chinese Medicine, modern research)
- traditional for epilepsy (dates back to Galen or prior)
- nightmares (use dates back to the middle ages, although they preferred the seeds for this rather than the root)
- brain injuries (this use is described briefly by Matthew Wood in The Earthwise Herbal)
- traditional antispasmodic in cough formulas (early American Herbalism)
How to Safely Use Peony
Low Dose Botanical: No.
Potential Food Source: Yes, at least for flavoring. Peony seeds were often used as a spice in the middle ages, and savvy modern cooks know that the heady floral fragrance can be captured in a syrup to add a surprising twist to confections and beverages.
Decoctions: Because it’s a root, peony needs to be decocted. A decoction is essentially a longer, more intense way of brewing an infusion (which is what most people think of as “tea”). The amount of herb used is determined based on the severity of the imbalance, whether it is chronic or acute, and the constitution of the individual.
With chronic imbalances, one typically starts with a lower amount and uses for a longer period of time. The inverse is true for acute imbalance. A sensitive constitution generally responds well to the lower end of the scale. So, for a typical decoction, use 3-12 grams of dried root per 4 cups of water. Prepare by soaking 30 minutes in water (use a clean glass or enamel container; and cover it, please- good hygiene, thanks!) , bring it all to a boil then simmer until reduced to two cups. Serving size for a decoction thus created is one cup at a time.
For further reference, there are approximately 28 grams to an ounce. (So 14 g is ½ ounce; 7 g is 1/3 oz etc). You can reuse the roots and repeat up to three times, generally. You can also skip the soaking period the first time if you are in a hurry, it just helps soften things up so the good stuff is easier to simmer out of the plant.
Frequency is traditionally up to every four hours for the first day if needed, then usually 2 or 3 times a day thereafter.
Extracts: To make your own peony root extract, use 1 ounce of dried, powdered root (by weight) per 5 oz of quality vodka (by volume). Go for 100 proof if you can. Let sit for a minimum of two weeks and strain through clean muslin or flannel. A serving size is 20-60 drops, 3-4 times a day. Actually, I hate dropper bottle caps with a passion- so lets have that in teaspoons, shall we? 50-60 drops is roughly a teaspoon. Remember, this isn’t a low dose botanical, so ball-parking it is ok. So, ⅓ to 1 full teaspoon 3-4 times a day, based on whether it’s an acute or chronic imbalance and the person's individual constitution.
When to Harvest: It's best to harvest peony roots after they are two years old, to give them time to reach a good size. Roots are best harvested in the fall, when the plant focuses more of its resources below ground in preparation for winter. After cleaning the roots with water to remove dirt, slice into thin pieces with a sharp knife and allow to dry. It's much easier to slice them while they are fresh. I prefer to wear gloves when working with roots unless they are also a food (like dandelion and burdock).
King's American Dispensatory: http://www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/kings/paeonia.html
Article on Peony in Traditional Chinese Medicine: http://www.itmonline.org/arts/peony.htm
Modern Research on Peony: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3108611/
The Earthwise Herbal by Matthew Wood
Healing With the Herbs of Life by Leslie Tierra