Three years ago, my wife Mary Alice and I planted a row of peonies. Last year we had a few flowers on one plant, a few buds that never bloomed on several and the remainder were just scraggly plants.
This year each plant has beautiful flowers, ranging from hues of deep magenta to pale pinks and white. It's hard to believe that these plants will die back and then re-emerge in late spring.
We have read that it takes several years for the peony plant to re-establish itself after being moved; however, once re-established the plant will bloom annually for decades.
Have you ever heard someone call a peony a piney? In my grandmother's day, this is what the peony was known as. The word "peony" comes from the Old French word "pione," which came from the Latin word "paeonia," meaning "healing." It is the only member of the family Paeoniaceae.
The peony was named after Paeon, who was a student of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine.
In the Illiad, there is a description of Paeon treating wounds with herbs that thicken the flow of blood (compared to rennet, a substance for curdling milk). After Asclepius became jealous of Paeon's possessing the healing root, Zeus changed Paeon into a plant to save his life.
By the time Pliny the Elder died in A.D. 79, the peony was said to have cured 20 different illnesses.
Our most common peony is Paeony officinalis. Traditionally, peonies come in four colors: white, blush, pink and red; however, through modern breeding, a greater range of colors has been achieved, including coral, yellow, variegated patterned peonies, etc.
Boundaries between species are not clear and estimates of the number of species range from 25 to 40.
Peonies are long lived. I read in one book that a peony plant can live for 100 years or more if left undisturbed.
Because of this, the peony is another flower that can be seen growing near an old crumbling foundation, where it is barely traceable that a house once stood.
Before the pioneer women went west with their husbands in search of a new life, peony tubers, along with other treasures, were stored in the wagons. Each June, the blooming of the peonies gave these women a reminder of home.
The peony is found growing across the country, from the bottomlands of the Ohio Valley to the prairies beyond the Mississippi.
The peony is believed to have originated in China, where it is among the longest-used flower in Eastern culture. In Chinese art, the peony typically is depicted as the flower of riches and honor.
In 1903, the Qin Dynasty had declared the peony as the national flower; however, the People's Republic of China has no legally designated national flower.
Throughout, the years, I was led to believe that peonies need ants to cross-pollinate. When looking closely at the peonies in our garden, I did find ants crawling all over them.
However, the garden myth that peony buds need ants for the buds to open properly is not true. A peony bud will open just as well with or without the ants.
Don't rush to the cupboard for the pesticide, because ants do serve a purpose - eating the bad insects that will cause harm to your peonies. A sweet sap, which is secreted in the bud, is what attracts the ants.
While the ants visit the peony for the nectar, they also dine on the harmful insects. Nothing in nature happens without a good reason. The sweet sap of the peonies beckons the ants to visit the flowers and provide protection from other insects.
In 1957, the peony became the state flower of Indiana, replacing the zinnia, which had been the state flower since 1931.
It has been said that mischievous nymphs hid in the petals of the peony, giving it the meaning of shame or bashfulness in the language of flowers.
Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.