June is peony season in the domesticated part of our yard, and this June, despite a cold and dry and windy spring, our peonies have outdone themselves. Here in the high-desert where water is short, I use garden water carefully (we get an average of ten inches of precipitation a year, rain and snow included, and this year's total so far has been a measly 1.84 inches). My priority is our kitchen garden, a set of raised beds that currently is producing more bags than we can eat (to our friends benefit!) of French Market and Monet's Garden lettuce mixes in an array of shapes and flavors from tangy and spicy to licorice-sweet, plus the wrinkled dark green leaves of Catalina spinach, City Lights chard with its stems in neon-bright colors, sweet and juicy Fort Laramie strawberries, and enough cilantro and dill to share with a local restaurant. (Thank you, Rene Shepherd of Rene's Garden Seeds!) The only other part of the yard that gets regular water is my peony bed, a raised bed that lines one edge of the wall containing the kitchen garden.
Why peonies here at 7,000 feet elevation in a valley so dry that cactus and fringed sage are more at home than trees? Because these long-lived plants take both Richard and me back to our childhoods--and earlier. They are part of our gardening heritage. When I advise gardeners on what to plant, especially those new to the arid, high-elevation West where the weather can range from hot and dry to a hard freeze to wind gusting with near-hurricane force to deluges of hail--and that's just in June--I always suggest they walk their neighborhood and see what is growing in the long-established yards, the neglected corners, and the old farmsteads where the houses are long gone but a few plants may remain outlining the foundations. If lilac shrubs still thrive, for instance, or banks of daylilies, or ranks of bearded iris, you know those plants will grow in your yard. The plants that have out-lived us, or the ones that live on because gardeners share seeds, cuttings, bulbs, or rhizomes are the heritage plants of any given place, the domesticated species that have made themselves at home in that particular climate and landscape.
But peonies in the high-desert? These perennials sprout clumps of leaves so early in spring that they come up tinted red to protect them from sun and frost, gradually push upwards on graceful stems, and then sprout buds oozing nectar from their seams and promptly attracting ants by the score. Helped by the ants in ways we haven't yet figured out, those buds bloom into fist-sized and larger masses of petals in white and pink and deep rose-red. Peonies bloomed through the springs of my childhood, their sweet scent drifting across the back yard into my bedroom window. And they bloomed in spring in Richard's childhood, including at his Grandma Lizzie's farmhouse near Possum Valley, Arkansas. They are rooted plants, each tuber capable of living a century or more, and they sulk when transplanted, taking several years to store enough energy to bloom again.
So when we settled here in south-central Colorado, in the town where Richard lived in early childhood, and my brother, Bill and sister-in-law Lucy gave us a gift certificate to White Flower Farm, the mail-order nursery whose catalog is a wonderland of plants, I knew where that gift would go: peonies (with a backdrop of summer-blooming lilies). I ordered a collection of unlabeled varieties harvested from the fields of a peony grower going out of business. Richard built me the bed, and I planted the tubers that fall. And Miss Alice, my mother-in-law, gave me a tuber from the peonies that grew at her childhood home in rural Arkansas. Putting those knobby brown tubers into the soil was one of my ways of rooting: as I patted the earth around one, I promised them silently I would stay to watch them bloom, spring after spring.
Just last week, my writing buddy Janet Riehl of the blog-magazine Riehlife mentioned that her father, Erwin Thompson, grew up on a farm that produced peonies. So I sent him some shots of our blooms. He wrote back a vivid remembrance of farming from the days when peonies were the market flower for Decoration Day, the June holiday when families brought cans of flowers to the cemetery to decorate the graves of their dead. On Decoration Day, we tidied up the cemetery, cutting back the long grass, trimming the shrubs, cleaning off the stones, and placing cut flowers--especially the blowsy heads of peonies, which loosed their sweet scent on the air. And had picnics. Decoration Day is long-gone, as is the farmhouse where my mother-in-law grew up, but the peonies I call "Old Home Place" bloom in white profusion in our garden a thousand miles from southern Arkansas (and 6,900 feet higher) in company with a whole bed of other peonies in blush-pink and vivid rose-red.
There's a vase of peonies on the dining table near where I write, including the pink ones pictured above. When I pass by, they loose a trail of sweetness with a hint of spice, that fragrance that only peonies can make.