“Had I but four square feet of ground at my disposal, I would plant a peony in the corner and proceed to worship.” –Alice Harding, The Book of the Peony, 1917
When my mother died a few years ago, I planted her ashes at the base of my peony plants. The peony was her favorite flower, as it is mine. I have seven peony plants but only five bloom – the five that have her ashes. Today those five are in bloom but because we’ve had weeks of rain, I picked many of the buds in the early morning and now, in the house, they are blooming profusely. Peonies fully opened are heady in scent and profoundly beautiful — bowls of beauty. I’ve placed them all around my house – kitchen, living room, dining room, on top of the wood stove, in the bathroom, in the bedroom. I’ve two glorious bouquets next to me as I write this.
Peonies nearly make me swoon with their luxurious bounty, health and exquisite form. When I wake in the morning, I lay my face in their blooms, inhaling their luminous scent, and feel the silky, cool petals on my cheek. I can’t get enough of them.
Even the names of peonies are delightful and varied: Abalone Pearl, Angel Cheeks, Crinkled Linen, Princess of Darkness, Solange, Ursa Minor, and one of my favorites, Sarah Bernhardt. She is deliciously fragrant, and has a rose pink double bloom with a violet tinted center interspersed with salmon. Peony experts describe her as “very floriferous.”
Peonies are hearty, flourishing even when neglected. I like these kinds of plants best. Dandelions, wild chervil, milkweed, sumac – all these so-called weeds thrive no matter what we do to them and to my mind deserve to be respected and revered. When humans are gone, I imagine these plants will thrive, along with returning bees, bats and even more coyotes — creatures that are adaptable and thrive on diversity.
My peonies in vases last for weeks for two reasons. One is because I won’t let them go and leave them until the petals lace their way to the floor and the stems are bare. And two, because I change their water every other day with a homemade preservative, as well as shortening their stems slightly at an angle with a sharp knife.
This recipe I found years ago (but I don’t remember where). 1 quart H2O, 2 TBLS fresh lemon juice, 1 TBL sugar, 1/2 TSP bleach — I keep the mixture in the refrigerator.
I have a friend who grows her own peonies for florists and weddings. She can keep her peony buds in the cooler for four weeks as long as she picks the buds early in the morning and plunges them directly into cold water.
A few months after my mother died, I bought a Félix Crouse peony, originally from Somerset, England. This peony has ruby red flowers with a silky luster — just like my mom. She had a hedge of these at her home in Connecticut with literally hundreds of blooms. I renamed the flower Fehr Judith, after her. Her maiden name was Judith Fehr (pronounced fair). Today my single plant has nine enormous blooms and more to come. I always try to leave blossoms on each peony plant so when I walk in the garden, my mother is everywhere.
And now, because of the rain, I’ve brought her into the house, to every room, gracing my world with enchantment.
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 —
–from “Peonies” by Mary Oliver
Dian Parker is a freelance writer for a number of New England publications, including Art New England, the White River Herald, OpEd News, and many others. She is the gallery director for White River Gallery in Vermont and an oil painter. Parker has written about porcupines, old growth trees, architecture, artists, inventors, and immortality. She lives in the backwoods of Vermont at 1800 feet; kayaking, gardening, and recently completing a short story collection.
Photos by the author of peonies from her garden