These are incredibly challenging times we are living through and our country is suffering. How we address these problems and how we use our voices is up to each of us as individuals. Personally, I know what I need to do. However, in this space I will continue to do what I’ve always done – which is offer readers a place of peace. The beauty of nature is for all of us and we need to find time to reflect and rejuvenate as we travel this long road together.
Audrey Hepburn said, “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow”. Never before in my life has that message been so pertinent. My garden has been my “shelter from the storm” as well as a beacon during this difficult time. As a result, I have been very much in tune with its cycles, its bountiful offerings and the immense joy and sense of calm it brings to my life. I’m working, planting, cutting, gathering, arranging and sharing with loved ones around my table most nights. As I ponder the ebbs and flows of the garden – what has gone and what’s to come – I’m filled with hope. Few flowers spark that anticipation and promise more than my beloved peonies!
Peonies are the showstoppers of the garden. They are bold, audacious and big (they can reach up to 10 inches in diameter!). Their season, in most places, runs until the end of June. But in cooler climates with well-drained soil, like Alaska, peony season can run until August (making this green thumb green with envy)! They grow as a herbaceous plant or a semi-woody shrub or tree (and the blooms on those stop me dead in my tracks with their arresting beauty). Peonies come in every color except for blue and it’s thought the lighter pink variety are the most fragrant.
The peony gets its name Paeon, a character in Greek mythology. Paeon was a student of medicine and had an uncanny natural ability to heal people. Asclepius, his mentor, became so jealous that he plotted to kill him. Zeus saved Paeon from this impending doom by taking him away from Mount Olympus and turning him into a flower on Earth (the peony).
Peonies hold a special place in various cultures. The Chinese (who call them sho yu, meaning “most beautiful”) use them to decorate homes and offices because they are a symbol of good fortune and success. They also have medicinal properties and have been used to treat pain in everything from childbirth to curing gallstones.
Ants play an integral part in helping peonies. They are attracted to the nectar and will climb inside the flower and open the bloom up further. This facilitates the blooming process (as well as deterring other damaging insects). Peonies, in addition, require extra potassium to ward off disease and develop stronger stems.
One of the most adored peonies (and a favorite of mine) is the variety Sarah Bernhardt. It is named after the renowned French actress, Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), who was one of the most celebrated thespians of her time. A serious actress of the stage, she appeared in plays by Dumas, Hugo and Sardou. She also commanded the stage in male roles, playing Hamlet in the iconic Shakespeare play. She had grace, beauty and charisma but was also unconventional and fearless. Oscar Wilde once questioned if “she would mind his smoking and she replied, “I don’t care if you burn”.
French breeders were responsible for many of the peony varieties introduced in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, when Sarah was at the height of her stage career. In 1906, a romantically fragrant pink peony (which has come to be our modern-day darling) was named after her.
Other varieties I adore include Red Charm, Bess Bockstoce, Bartzella, Cincinnati, Cream Puff, Kansas, Emma Klehm, Felix Crousse, First Arrival, Hanakisoi, Hu Hong, Kamata-nishiki, Leda, Lowell Thomas, Old Faithful, Paeonia rockii, Paul M. Wild, Pillow Talk and Vivid Rose.
Many of you kindly share stories with me about the flowers that are connected to your childhood memories of your beloved family members or friends. I often hear that a certain flower is adored because your mom carried it in her bridal bouquet, or it covered your grandmother’s yard where you loved to picnic together. I find these stories and the associations to these flowers to be so heart-warming. My mom, Elaine, who is in her 90’s, is failing in health and I fear she is fading away. I have been putting a tree peony in a vase by her bed every few days. Each time I place the vase down her eyes well up and she says, “that’s the most beautiful flower I have ever seen”. I think the same about her.
Here’s to the people (and flowers) who bring joy to our lives!