The language of flowers ladies (who were around in the 1800s) got peonies wrong—hopelessly wrong. They decided that these plants denoted “bashfulness,” because of a Greek myth about mischievous cherubs hiding themselves in the flowers’ voluminous petals.
Okay, it’s a cute image. But bashful? You’ve got to be kidding. No one in their right mind would describe peonies that way. Flashy, yes. And flirty. And flamboyant. And flouncy. And flagrant. And . . . A trowelful of adjectives beginning with an f comes immediately to mind when picturing how these flowers look, yet “bashful” doesn’t figure in the equation. Not at all. Those upper-class females who sat around in their hoop skirts, dreaming up symbols for flowers, had perhaps got into the laudanum by the time they’d moved down the alphabet to peonies. So they goofed.
Because far from being shy and retiring, these flowers are surely among the most shameless exhibitionists ever created by Mother Nature. In reality, with their blowsy, D-cup blooms strutting atop those precarious chicken-leg stems they are (to modern eyes at least) the Dolly Partons of the garden. Like the country singer, they can come across as a tad vulgar and over the top, yet that’s the secret of their indefatigable charm too. People seem to love Dolly’s outrageous sense of chutzpah and it’s surely the same with peonies—which are, when you think about it, ridiculous, exasperating, and pointless flowers, because they often collapse at the drop of a hat. Those thin stems never seem to be able to prop up the too-weighty blooms for very long, even with the newer, less top-heavy single varieties, and the mess they leave behind can severely test our patience. Yet, despite this defect, you will rarely meet anyone who dislikes peonies. On the contrary. To most gardeners, they are heaven-sent objects of adoration.
Why? Just take a look at a big clump of peonies, resplendent with blooms, on a June day. Even the most abundant of roses pale beside prolific peonies. Their very extravagance is surely unmatched by anything else we grow—so many opulent petals on each huge flower head, and, often, such an amazing number of flower heads, all popping open from their odd gobstopper buds at once. Reliably as clockwork every year too, with no prodding at all from us. (Hard winters don’t—what bliss!—faze their hulking great roots. Nor do they demand fussing with fertilizers.) Then bend over a bloom. Breathe in deeply. Their scents can be delicious—delicate, light, sweet, yet strong enough to waft all over the garden—and their colours are equally mouthwatering. Froths of pure white, creamy vanilla or lemon, sugary pink shot through with ripples of raspberry, tangerine touched with a tease of orange, luminous cherry red, and a deep, delicious plum that positively shimmers. Ornamented at their centres with tangles of twirly, golden threads, our voluptuous peonies float atop their handsome dark green foliage like luscious cut-open peaches and dishes of delectable ice cream. They look almost good enough to eat.
Yet like any delicious treat, the sensory pleasure is tantalizingly short, over almost as soon as it starts. Peony petals start dropping within a week, often less. And inevitably, infuriatingly, a rain or wind storm will roll in when the blooms are going full blast, causing the stems underneath to immediately collapse in an untidy heap, transforming our objects of worship into wads of wet Kleenex, nasty and slippery, piling up on the garden path. If you’re quick enough, you can rush around like crazy with a pair of secateurs, frantically cutting blooms off to bring them indoors before the full force of the rain or wind wreaks this destruction. (And it’s worth doing, because peonies make the most elegant and classy cut flowers in the world.) But usually, we’re too late. Once the realization hits that the show’s over for another year, all that’s left to do is sigh, recall how breathtakingly beautiful Mother Nature’s short burst of munificence was, then sweep up the heaps of sodden petals, hoping, a bit grimly, perhaps, for drier, calmer days next June.
But who would be without peonies? Not many northern gardeners, if they’re familiar with their spectacular allure and have the space to grow them. (They require lots of sun, an open aspect, and good drainage.) This is, after all, a love affair that has lasted for thousands of years.
Excerpted from The Untamed Garden by Sonia Day. Copyright © 2011 by Sonia Day. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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