No flower better personifies high spring and the approach of summer than the peony. Long-lived and highly fragrant, it’s my favorite late-spring blossom. A single peony flower, cut and placed in a vase in a still room, will perfume the air within ten feet around it.
When thinking of peonies, most people immediately envision the big doubles, or the “bombs,” which are not at all my favorites. These large and heavy flowers invariably collect rainwater in the convolutions of their petals until they bend double, touch the ground and begin to rot. But there are many other configurations to choose from, including single, semi-double, anenome and Japanese.
I prefer the single and anenome forms because they clearly display the shape of the basic flower with its central rosette of stamens. The gold of the centers contrasts nicely with the crimson, white or pink of the surrounding petals. Singles also have the tidy habit of folding up at nightfall and opening again the next morning.
Here in Bloomington, Indiana, the largest public planting of peonies is the magnificent display near the entrance to Rose Hill Cemetery, which is always at its peak for a week or two around Memorial Day. Hundreds of peonies are growing there, which according to local lore were supposedly divided from early specimens planted decades ago. (A healthy peony will last a century or more and can probably be divided countless times.)
The north-south lane leading from the main gate to Kirkwood is currently an impressive mass of flowering peony bushes. Most headstones in this part of the cemetery have one or even two peony bushes planted beside them. Because peonies are scarce in the remainder of the cemetery, with almost none in the oldest part of the grounds, I suspect that the bushes in that particular “peony zone” date back only to the age of the headstones there, which range from the 1960s to the ’80s. But even if they’re not as old as many believe, the plants they came from are still anywhere from 30 to 50 years old, not bad at all for a perennial flower.