My Grandma Thelma used to grow peonies. She was my mother’s mother, and we lived next door. She had a large rectangular flower bed halfway between the road and our houses, in the front yard that we shared. In one far corner was a birdhouse, high up on top of a trellis that my Grandpa Ted had built. It looked kind of like four ladders leaning in toward each other. In the center of that trellis, a climbing rose grew. My mother told us that the rose’s thorns would keep snakes from stealing the bird’s eggs.
In the front corner of the flower bed, nearest to our house, peonies bloomed in the springtime. I’m sure I didn’t know what they were, as a small child, and the flower bed had been dismantled and mowed over long before I was old enough to ask. Rather, I recognize them from the peonies that bloom in my garden now. When my plants finally flowered, I remembered my grandmother’s peonies.
I’d actually had peonies for over ten years, and in two different locations, before I ever saw a blossom. I started with two plants, in another location on Beaver Island. They had been in the ground there for five years without ever so much as a bud, so I moved them down to this house with me, even though I know they prefer to not be moved. Here, they had a plenty of time to get used to their new location, and still they refused to flower.
When the hardware store started carrying plants in the spring, I bought two more peonies. These had buds already formed on the ends of branches, so I figured that at least I’d have a few flowers. I expanded the bed to accommodate two more peony plants. That year, and for every year since, all four plants have bloomed! And what flowers! The big, exuberant blooms are almost too much. They seem like caricatures of flowers, too big and heavily scented and full, extreme in every way, to be real. After a rain, the blossoms become so heavy, they bend to the ground.
Ants seem to love the peonies. Some years they are just covered with them. Folklore suggests that they are necessary to open the buds, but I don’t believe it. I think the ants are there for the sweetness. This year, ants are scarce, but beetles have moved in. After a little research, I determined that they are likely rose chafers. Because I rarely use poisons on any plants, and never on flowers, I’ve been reduced to picking them off. I drop them, then, into a container of water mixed with dish soap. Morning and evening, a hundred or more each time. I started with a small sauce dish, but have graduated to a gallon-sized bucket. It’s practically a full-time job!
I love having bouquets in the house. Usually, they are made up of wildflowers. Though I grow lots of flowers, I don’t have a “cutting garden,” so stealing blooms from my flower beds has to be very selective, or the beds end up looking derelict. That’s not the case with my peonies, though. First of all, they produce a lot of blooms. I can easily make several bouquets, and still have many blossoms on the plants. Secondly, when the branches are so heavy with blooms that they are being weighted down, it seems almost necessary to snip off a few of the heavy flowers. And finally, when the beetles seem so intent on destroying every flower, I’ll happily rescue them!