A Passion For Peonies

THE REAL DIRT

May 15, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Peonies are old-fashioned plants with elegant, glossy foliag and soft, billowy flowers reminiscent of gentler days of yore.

I call them Granny plants.

There are two peonies growing beside our front door. One has fragrant pink blossoms the size of Shaquille O'Neal's hand; the other, huge white heads tinged scarlet at the core.

The blooms will open soon -- our cue to divert traffic from the front entrance to the back, rather than disturb the delicate blossoms that are holding the front steps hostage.

I can't wait for the plants to flower.

Neither can the ants.

Ants swarm to my peonies in droves. Lured by the sweet smell of nectar, the ants shinny up the stems, lick their little bug lips and, in an antlike frenzy, attack the opening buds as if they were Popsicle stains on the patio.

The ants are more nuisance than naughty; they rarely damage the flowers. But their mere presence aboard the plants is enough of a yuck factor to vex novice peony growers.

"Ants are the one thing that some peony gardeners are sort of funny about," says Greta Kessenich, of the American Peony Society.

Displacing the ants is easy, she says: Simply spray the plants with a garden hose. Do this before picking the flowers to keep ants out of the house, where they can become real pests.

I once cut some peonies to decorate the dinner table. Never gave the ants a thought. Throughout the meal, the insects forsook the flowers in favor of our plates. The dinner table looked more like a picnic table that night.

Aside from ants, precious little threatens the peony, a hardy and carefree perennial that will flourish for decades on nothing more than a fistful of bone-meal fertilizer each spring.

A native of China, where it was considered a symbol of wealth and status, the common peony yields roselike flowers of white, pink and red on handsome 3-foot plants in early summer. The double blossoms may measure 8 inches across, drenching the mound in color and earning it VIP (Very Important Plant) status in the ornamental garden.

Prized by the ancients for both its beauty and medicinal value -- the Chinese made a salve from the roots -- the peony arrived in America with the earliest settlers. Thomas Jefferson raised a few peonies in his garden at Monticello.

Then there is Ms. Kessenich, who cares for 400 peonies at her home in Hopkins, Minn. "That's about all I can take care of," says the editor of the journal of the American Peony Society.

Come June, when all her plants are in bloom, Ms. Kessenich simply stands on the porch, gazes out at the sea of peonies and inhales deeply.

"It kind of soothes your nerves," she says.

Granny plants have that effect on people. Long a mainstay in older gardens, peonies have begun carving a niche among new homeowners anxious to grasp the past, says Ms. Kessenich.

"These young people all want to grow peonies like their mothers and grandmothers did," she says.

There's just one hitch: The plants are notoriously slow to bloom. Grown from roots, which are available from nurseries in spring and fall, peonies may take up to three years to flower.

"They won't bloom at all if you plant them too deep, which is the biggest mistake people make," says Ms. Kessenich, who advises setting the buds, or "eyes," no more than 2 inches underground in rich, well-drained soil. Peonies like full sun but will tolerate light shade.

Peonies are remarkably rugged, she says: "My plants all survived a winter of minus-40 degrees, and I didn't even mulch them."

It's easier to grow a peony than to state its name. Peony purists say the correct pronunciation is PEE-oh-nee. Others contend that the plant is a pee-OH-nee.

Both camps stand firm. You say PEE-oh-nee, and I say pee-OH-nee. . . .

The plant answers to both, says Ms. Kessenich:

"It really doesn't matter, so long as you don't call it a petunia."

For more information about peonies, write the American Peony Society, 250 Interlachern Road, Hopkins, Minn. 55343.

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