• T.M. O’Shaughnessy

Don’t shoot me, I’m only the peony player


Herbaceous peonies come in every shade except blue and have a subtle but beautiful scent.

Only a peony could convince you to do it.

To lovingly tend a plant that will barely stand upright when blooming. To set up a whole section of your garden for a perennial that will collapse at the merest hint of rain. To bring indoors a succession of roomy blooms that will capsize whole colonies of ants all over you and your house the second you try and tame it into a vase. Only a peony, that lavish, lush and nostalgic flower, could make all of the above worth it.

And here’s why.

Peonies are one of the most beautiful creations on the planet, and that’s up against some serious competition. The sheer size of the bloom is a wonder, and its colouring, which comes in every shade except blue, is masterpiece-worthy. For centuries, Chinese artists have been painting peonies onto everything, and their name for it, ‘sho yu,’ actually means ‘most beautiful.’

Peonies are also subtly fragrant. Though the lighter pink ones have more perfume than the darker burgundy ones, the scent is always soft and pretty. In fact, the peony’s nectar that contributes to this scent is the thing all those ants are after. They climb the plant and, depending on which side of the argument you stand, they help to open the beautiful peony bud to help it bloom (though others say this is an old wives’ tale). Either way, the reality is that ants will love your peony even more than you do.

Historically, the peony was one of the stalwarts of any apothecary or midwife’s garden as the roots, seeds, bark and flower were all useful for medicinal purposes. The Chinese first used them as pain relievers – and they were brought to Europe in the Middle Ages to ease the pain of childbirth, cure gallstones, and, of course, ward off evil spirits.

The peony is much stronger than it looks and can live to be more than 100 years old. So many of the peonies you encounter in the older neighbourhoods, for example, are senior citizens.

But if you are contemplating the planting of a baby peony, choose a spot with well-drained soil and about six to eight hours of sun a day. Space them well as they need air circulating around them in order to avoid the fungal diseases that sometimes prey on them, and protect them from the hot direct rays of a boiling afternoon sun as they won’t do well in those conditions.

There are different kinds of peonies to choose, among them the herbaceous ones, which are the bloomy, blowsy ones you often see – or perhaps a tree peony, which produces some of the most glorious flowers I’ve ever seen. Just don’t trim the buds of your tree peony in the fall when you cut the garden down! Because those are what will flower the next June.

In short, the nostalgic peony is a stunning dream of a flower, and you would do well to choose some for any garden.

But there will be lots of ants. And you must just accept that it may all end in tears if a rip-roaring rainstorm deluges their big beautiful blooms.

Don’t blame me for making you a peony gardener – just clean it up and wait until next year. The peony is worth waiting for.

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