Wednesday, June 22, 2005


In the last day or so, every time I ponder the question, what shall I blog next, from somewhere this answer presents itself: peonies

Which is odd, because I don’t even own any. I wish I did, though. Every year when new sprouts break the soil in others’ gardens, I recognize peonies among them and get a twinge of jealousy; I should have planted some.

But I never have because they sprawl all over the bed so languorously and bloom for such a short time, I just haven’t found space for them in my niggardly suburban plots. Plus whenever I see them in bloom in someone else’s yard, they’re crawling with ants.

But we do have a history, peonies and I. I had them in rose bowls as centerpieces for my wedding (and what a tense time that was – the spring of 1981, when we’d planned on peonies but the season was early).

Here are a few peony bits:

From my flower bible: The Flower Expert by D. G. Hessayon:

Paeonies are the aristocrats of the herbaceous perennial world. The flower stalks rise up above the attractive foliage and each one bears several blooms – blooms which make most other garden flower blush with shame.... (would you say he likes them?)

Regard paeonies as a long-term investment and learn the rules before you start planting. Choose an open, sunny spot but try to avoid a situation where early morning sun will shine on the plants. Early autumn is the best time for planting and the soil should be deeply dug and enriched with compost or leaf mould. Set the crown of the plant no lower than 1 inch below the soil surface. The main thing you then have to remember is to leave the plant alone – it may not flower in the first season and may not be properly established for three years..."

And from Lois Hole’s Perennial Favorites:

Don’t plant peonies near trees where they will have intense competition for nutrients and moisture. Also avoid low spots, where puddles form after a rainfall. Peonies will rot in wet soil.

Never add manure to the planting hole, as this results in weak, spindly growth.

Blooms cut at the loose bud stage will open and last twice as long as those cut when they are fully open. The best time to cut peony flowers is in the morning. They last about two weeks in a vase.

Peony petals retain their fragrance for a long time and thus make a good addition to potpourri.

They also dry well and can be added to arrangements of other dried everlastings.

And work and patience of cultivating peonies does yield a stunning reward. Two of my favorite poets have written about peonies.


This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises,
as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers

and they open-
pools of lace,
white and pink -
and all day the black ants climb over them,

boring their deep and mysterious holes
into the curls,
craving the sweet sap,
taking it away

to their dark, underground cities--
and all day
under the shifty wind,
as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies,
and tip their fragrance to the air,
and rise,
their red stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness
gladly and lightly,
and there it is again -
beauty the brave, the exemplary,

blazing open.
Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
and softly,
and exclaiming of their dearness,
fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
their eagerness
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
nothing, forever?

- by Mary Oliver

and here is Jane Kenyon's

Peonies at Dusk

White peonies blooming along the porch
send out light
while the rest of the yard grows dim.

Outrageous flowers as big as human
heads! They're staggered
by their own luxuriance: I had
to prop them up with stakes and twine.

The moist air intensifies their scent,
and the moon moves around the barn
to find out what it's coming from.

In the darkening June evening
I draw a blossom near, and bending close
search it as a woman searches
a loved one's face.

Jane Kenyon from Constance(1993)

So sniff a peony today, but don’t get an ant up your nose!

Or, read more writing inspired by peonies. Accidental Poet has a Peony Post, which will take you to this poem and this story.


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