Why we love peonies

The early spring brought some peonies out of their winter slumber a bit prematurely, but many, like those in my back yard, opened fully on cue on Friday and Saturday and were in all their voluminous, colorful glory as Memorial Day approached.

And then, as if to prove how perverse Mother Nature can be, she sent a windy, pounding rain Saturday morning, pummeling many wide open blooms to the ground, bending and breaking stems and melting the blooms that had been open just a little too long.

Now is when you get out that peony bowl and float a couple of the survivors in the house to remind us why we grow these durable yet delicate bloomed beauties. Durable, because these are plants that may have crossed the prairie in covered wagons, their rhizomes stowed away to ensure that some familiar piece of “home” would greet the travelers when they set down roots in some windy and fertile stake of land. Before that, the rhizomes had likely traveled from China and Japan to Eastern Europe where there was a bit of a frenzy in the late 1780s.

Peonies further proved their mettle in the mid- to late-1880s, when they were one of the most popular florist blooms available in the U.S. Many of the most notable peony growers were located in the central U.S., especially Illinois, Missouri and Minnesota. Peony blooms were picked in bud, and put in cold storage for four to six weeks and then brought out and transported to markets elsewhere in the U.S.

A staple of traditional landscapes in the mid-20th century were windrows of peony shrubs, often used to decorate the graves of family members and those who had died in military service. In modern garden design, peonies are a reliable source of late spring color that can serve well as a backdrop of shiny green leaves for other blooms to come later in the summer into fall.

While some may consider peonies an “old fashioned” choice for garden cultivation, it is hard to argue against a plant that requires virtually no care except for fertilization, and can live happily in its place for 100 years. Finally, for many of us, the peony is a symbol of colorful memories of times with older family, lemonade, the smells and sights of childhood and of the enduring imprint of the garden.


Written by Anne Larson, Garden’s Grace blog contributor.