Sunday, June 14, 2009

seduction: a gardener succumbs

If I were a proper Victorian gardener I would blush with shame. Shame at how I have succumbed to seduction. Seduction by the lush, the fragrant, the I-want-to-dive-in-and-bury-myself-in-its-petals...the peony!

I'm not a fan of the merely pretty flower. I need more: multiple seasons of interest, tasty fruit, edible foliage. When we moved into our house in PA the first things I dug up and gave away were four peonies. The idea of an old-fashioned, traditional flower didn't appeal to me. No, I wasn't high, I'd simply never grown peonies before. Never sunk my nose deep into the the silky softness of the too-numerous-to-count petals. Never lost myself inside the corolla, pushing deeper into the center of the bloom to brush against the velvety yellow stamens. To truly appreciate this flower, you've got to give yourself over completely.

Sure, I could tell you Paeonia hybrids are sun-loving perennials, hardy to Zone 3. They grow to be approximately 3 feet wide and 2.5' tall. Leaves are alternate, sometimes lobed, with elliptical to lanceolate leaflets. Peony flowers are 3-6" wide, in shades of red, pink, and white. They may be single or double and are always fragrant. They grow best in well-drained, fertile soil and flower most proliferously in full sun. (Even in partial sun you'll get several worthwhile blooms.) Peonies make an excellent cut flower. They should be divided in late summer, making sure to plant the crown 1" below the soil surface.

That's the run-down I give my students in Spring Perennials at the NYBG. But what does it REALLY tell you? Does it tell you even the back of the flower is beautiful? Does it tell you you can lose yourself in the abundant layers of each individual bloom? Does it tell you once you've grown a peony you can never be without them?

There are certain things you can only learn through experience, and peony appreciation is one of those things. I urge you to give in. You're going to thank me.

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At June 15, 2009 at 1:30 AM , Anonymous Leda Meredith said...

I'm not surprised the peony won you over--it is truly gorgeous. For what it's worth, the Chinese use the root in their herbal medicine, so there is usefulness there as well as beauty. Though the beauty is enough.

At June 15, 2009 at 7:46 AM , Blogger Ellen Zachos said...

Thanks Leda. I was so enthralled with the mere aesthetics of the peony, I didn't mention ANY of its history or practical purposes. Like how Homer mentions it several times in The Iliad, how it's named after Paeonius, the physician who doctored Hades after an arrow wound, how Dioscorides prescribed it for post-partum symptoms. What a plant!

At June 15, 2009 at 1:23 PM , Blogger Mark Hardy said...

Truly a blossom all about abandon, more ravishment than refinement! Hardly a granny flower. I've fallen prey to the charms of tree peonies: a brief, glorious burst of passion and worth the wait. I could go a little crazy, but limited space keeps my affections in check.

At June 15, 2009 at 5:04 PM , Blogger layer said...

your post is precisely the reson one peony is the only flowering plant in my tiny garden. unfortunately, i over-watered it early on and none of my buds opened. i will try again next year.

At June 15, 2009 at 8:54 PM , Blogger Ellen Zachos said...

Ah Mark, you clearly understand the essence of the peony.

Layer, I'm so sorry your peony didn't produce this year. Keeping my fingers crossed for next year's bloom!

At June 17, 2009 at 3:58 PM , Blogger leedav said...

My peonies are annoyingly fuschia AND they don't smell delicious like other peonies I've experienced. Alas, I can't seem to dig it up...

At June 17, 2009 at 10:09 PM , Blogger Ellen Zachos said...

Hi Leedav, I've never heard of a non-fragrant disappointing! If you can't bring yourself to dig up the non-perfumed peony maybe you could plant a fragrant one next to it. It might help ease your frustration. Or maybe peony #2 could teach peony #1 how to smell good.

At August 10, 2016 at 4:35 PM , Anonymous Gail said...

I love the way the layers look. Such a beautiful creation.


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