It was over almost before it began. My herbaceous peonies (as opposed to the tree variety) were dressed in their loveliest pale pink flouncy tutus late last Friday afternoon. They swayed together, graceful as ballerinas, in the light breeze as if hearing the first faint notes of an invisible orchestra. I’d been waiting for weeks to see them in this state of perfection: so fresh-faced and expectant, fragrant with youth and promise!
Peonies are among the first of the perennials to rouse themselves at winter’s end, wiggling their dark purple fingers up through the thawing earth along with the early daffodils. By mid-April they could pass for not particularly promising asparagus spears. In fact, there’s nothing much about this early rubbery stalk stage of their growth that indicates the prodigious beauty that is to come. But then, in a burst of activity that seems to take place overnight, they fill out into glossy green hoop-skirt-shaped masses dotted all over with jaw-breaker sized buds. Ants are often attracted to the nectar these buds give off and apparently actually help in opening the dense double flowers found in many varieties.
My oldest peony bush came with the house and was, I believe, planted in the late 1940s. Herbaceous peony bushes can last for decades. I’ve seen some blooming in the middle of fallow fields near no doubt to where a house once stood. When properly cared for (a little fertilizer, the occasional division) they’ll bloom like clockwork year after year. As the Berkshire area is made up of so many microclimates, the same cultivated hybrid that blossomed two weeks ago in Sheffield is just now coming into its glory in West Stockbridge.
Sadly, that glory is fleeting. The flowering life of the herbaceous peony is generally all of one week — and aptly described in this poem by the famous local party girl Edna St. Vincent Millay: “My candle burns at both ends/It will not last the night/ But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends/It gives a lovely light.” RI’s own Bess Hochstein says: “I tend to think of them as the dumb blondes of the garden, because if they grow for even me (and they do) they are a no-brainer for sure. Plus they are so top heavy, like they’ve had implants, that they topple over without support!”
Maria Nation, whose magnificent Good Dogs Farm in Ashley Falls has some of the most beautiful peonies in our area, sums up the problem: “After a rain they look like wet debutantes laying on the ground in their wet ball gowns.”
Which leads me back to last Friday night. It rained hard. And then rained some more. Wind rattled the window frames. Thunder rumbled through. And in the morning my peonies that just the day before had been the belles of the ball lay spent and bedraggled — like Maria’s hard-partying debutantes — in postures of abandon all around the garden.
However, even with the blooms cut back, mature peony bushes make a respectable addition to the summer garden. They tend to hold their rounded shapes and the green, distinctively cut leaves retain a glossy luster. But they’re more chaperone than companion for the younger, exuberbant geraniums and poppies that are taking to the dance floor. Early passions banked, by mid-June there’s little about the peonies matronly, benign demeanors that would make you suspect what wild nights they had once known.