Favorite Flora: Peonies

By Michael Leach

Peonies make the humblest garden look rich. Their grand dame appearance is a combination of belle-epoque Paris and Chinese paintings. Peonies look like prima donnas but are tough as work horses. They need little more than full sun and decent soil to add grandeur for generations yet to be born.

I suppose that’s why peonies are a part of so many Midwest gardens. Once established, they blossom every year, just as spring turns into summer. All but one of the peonies in my garden are family heirlooms. I bought Sarah Bernhardt a few years ago. An admirable addition, she’s the only one I have a name for. My favorite I know only as Aunt Mary’s peony, actually a great aunt. Her namesake is a deep, wine-red flower with satin petals and lush scent.

My dirt-dabbling ancestors probably began growing peonies in Victorian times. Like family memories and legends, they were passed down from generation to generation. Both sides of my family added to the collection here at the family home place, where  one of my grandmothers was born in 1890. My parents moved into the house in 1952 and probably planted peonies as soon as they could pause in house rehabbing.

Unlike the old house, little work is needed to maintain the peony legacy. If time allows in busy spring, I tie cotton string around the stems to reduce their tendency to flop after a thunderstorm. I cut off the faded flowers. After the plants begin looking dowdy in autumn, the plants are cut to the ground and their remains placed at the curb for municipal composting. I want to reduce the potential of botrytis in my compost pile and on the ground around the plants. The fungus can keep the flowers from opening.

The effort is worth it. Life is too short to miss a single peony flower.

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