Peonies have never done it for me, but the more I see them around this spring, the more I watch them unfurl into mad pompons of to-die-for coral pink, the more I find myself coming around. Pretty, pretty...I was strolling around a nursery with a friend when we passed the peony section. He said firmly, "I hate peonies. Aunts love them, though." I nodded sagely, thinking, "Oh, Aunts- the crazy things they like! Rod Stewart, cowgirl boots, hand-knitted scarves..." (Okay, it turns out my aunts and I have the same taste.) What he meant, of course, is that ants love peonies, and indeed I cannot picture the flower without imagining hundreds of ants living blissfully within each blossom. Not the sort of thing you want to get too close to, and forget about bringing one into your home. Ew.
But of course, there's a way around the ant situation. You can buy cut peonies, of course, ant-free and running between $4-$15/stem in San Francisco right now. Or you can follow the advice of Peony's Envy Nursery: "If you are worried about ants when bringing cut flowers into the house simply cut the flowers when the buds are still closed but soft. The buds start out as hard marble-like formations and as they begin to open they get soft like a marshmallow. Cut the flowers at this stage before the ants have found their way into the heart of the flower." Got that? After the marble stage, before the pompon stage.
Peonies are best grown in Hardiness Zones 3-8, but have any of you Bay Area Zone 9b gardeners had luck growing them? Those zone rules are sometimes made to be broken, but are sometimes hard & fast. Much of the West Coast and Pacific Northwest falls within zones 7 & 8 so there's hope for you all. Margaret Roach of A Way To Garden has an excellent peony health guide, poignantly titled "When The Normally Tough Peony Fails To Bloom". She'll get your peonies blooming like crazy in no time. Peony's Envy Nursery also has an amazingly thorough guide to peonies, including how to best care for cut flowers.
So what is it about peonies that's suddenly appealing to me? It's not their famous perfume because, I must confess, I don't like floral scents. I think it's the fact that peonies start out as hard and round and fresh-scrubbed as new potatoes, and over the course of a sensational few days, transform themselves into outlandish tutus that prima ballerinas would give their tiaras to wear. Peonies slowly, gracefully, confidently explode into something completely unexpected, and that is a true sight to behold.