Peony Envy

peonie blossom
Purloined peonies – from shoots to buds to blossoms – flourish in their Martha’s Vineyard garden.

In 1972, my parents divorced after twenty-two years of marriage, and my mother became a peony thief. I was there when it happened. It was late summer, and my mother had come to Clove Creek Farm – the eighteenth-century farmhouse in Dutchess County, New York, that she and my father had purchased as newlyweds – to pack up her things and take them to the house she was renovating in Washington, DC, where she and I would move before my school year started.

When she was ready to leave, my father handed me a note to give to her and instructed me not to read it. Walking out to the driveway, I read it. It said, “Let us not say ‘adieu,’ but rather ‘au revoir.’” I’d had enough French by then to understand that he was trying to keep a door open in some way, since “adieu” implies a final goodbye, whereas “au revoir” means “until we meet again.” I thought the note wonderfully romantic and hopeful, but when my mother read it, she rolled her eyes, muttering, “Oh, for Chrissakes.” She crumpled the note and tossed it to the ground.

What my father didn’t know was that, although my mother was saying “adieu” to him, she was, in her own way, only saying “au revoir” to Clove Creek Farm. While her things were being loaded up, she surreptitiously dug up two peony plants to take with her. A piece of what had grown in the soil of the home she had shared with my father would now make its way to her new life in DC.

An avid and able gardener, my mother had been delighted to discover, upon moving to our farm in 1950, that its previous owner (a woman always referred to in our household as “Old Mrs. Fordington”) had been one too. Among the many fruits of Old Mrs. Fordington’s labors was a long row of well-established ‘Festiva Maxima’ peonies that bordered a wide curve in the dirt driveway.

Over the years, more than three thousand varieties of peonies have been developed and propagated. There’s even one named in honor of my grandmother, the ‘Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt’, introduced in 1932. It is multi-petaled, fragrant, and a soft pink, and I suppose I should find some room in my garden for one or two of these. But I digress.

sprouting peonie

‘Festiva Maxima’, in the words of an online purveyor called The Peony Garden, is a “tried and true older variety you likely remember from Grandma’s garden.” Its origin is uncertain, but most websites claim it was introduced in 1851 by an amateur Belgian breeder named Mielles, or Miellez. A vigorous bloomer, ‘Festiva Maxima’ has large, multi-petaled, globe-shaped blossoms that are white with occasional carmine stripes. A vase of its blossoms on the kitchen table perfumes the entire room. No wonder my mother wanted to take a couple with her.

To facilitate transport, she cut off the foliage and took the roots alone. Underground, mature peonies resemble a bunch of skinny brown carrots connected at their tops in a tuber-like mass. This mass houses several growth buds that are similar to the eyes of potatoes. From the buds, stems grow in the springtime. Peony roots can be transported “bare” (i.e., not in soil) so long as they do not dry out, and when purchased online, they often arrive packed in dampened moss.

My mother smuggled her contraband wrapped in damp newspaper inside a plastic bag, and no doubt she planted the two root masses almost immediately upon arriving in DC; no point in robbing your ex-husband of a couple of very fine, mature peonies and then letting them dry out before being transplanted. In any case, they flourished at their new home, though they probably didn’t do so fully for the first year or two after their move. “Peonies resent being transplanted,” my mother says, and they act out by refusing to bloom and/or producing substandard blossoms for a season or two.

Peonies are also, my mother points out, “picky about how they’re planted.” They like a spot that gets at least half a day of sunshine, with good drainage. Depth of planting is very important. Planted too deep, they will fail to thrive and possibly die of root rot. On Martha’s Vineyard, roots should be planted so that the eyes are two inches below the surface of the soil. (In warmer climates, they should be even shallower.)

My mother planted her purloined ‘Festiva Maxima’ quite to their satisfaction in her DC garden. They thrived there until sometime in the fall about ten years ago, when she and my stepfather decided to sell the DC house and move to Chestertown, Maryland. True to form, my mother wasn’t about to leave her peonies behind. She dug them both up and took one with her. The other she wrapped in damp newspaper inside a plastic bag, and sent it to me, here on Martha’s Vineyard, through the mail.

flower flower

I knew it was coming and had picked out a spot for it in one of my flower beds near the house. When it arrived, I unpacked it immediately – and my heart fell. The root had broken into three jagged pieces. This gorgeous, huge, venerable specimen had fallen apart, a victim of postal manhandling.

I called my mother. “Just plant it anyway,” she counseled. So I did – only I made an instinctual decision to plant the three pieces separately. If more than one of the pieces survived and grew, I thought, why not have more than one ‘Festiva Maxima’ in my garden?

Guess what? They all grew. I didn’t know as much about peonies then as I do now, but it turns out that the most common way to propagate peonies is by root division.

As was to be expected, my ‘Festiva Maxima’ didn’t bloom their first year here, but since year two, they’ve been blooming like crazy. They are now, all three, the largest and healthiest of all of my ten peony plants. Looking at them, you’d never guess that they’ve lived in at least three states, that they’ve suffered smuggling and postal abuse, or that they’re senior citizens. Who knows when Old Mrs. Fordington first planted them, or where and when they’d been planted before they got to Clove Creek Farm? Estimating very conservatively, I calculate that they’re certainly old enough to qualify for discounts at the movies and on public transportation, and it’s likely that they’re at least a couple of decades older than that.

And now I have three of them, while my mother has only the one she took with her from DC. She’s probably suffering from a pretty strong case of peony envy.