Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Peony to Build a Myth On

Writer Isak Dinesen might have achieved immortality by introducing peonies to Kenya, but she managed it another way.

imageIsak Dinesen

in 1958

Photo: Carl Van Vechten

We are prone to literary binges. Grazing through writers, we’ll suddenly fall deeply in love with one and then read nearly everything she or he produced – a kind of serial monogamy. Carolyn Keene, D.H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Virginia Woolf, Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Tolstoy…2007 has been our Isak Dinesen year.

Karen Blixen (her given name) was born in Denmark, lived for 17 years on a coffee farm in Kenya, and wrote mostly in English. We’ve read that as with her enchanting prose, she arranged flowers in eccentric fashion — something we hope to learn more about in months to come.

But for now, we’re finishing her memoir Out of Africa, an experience we would no more adulterate with Robert Redford than gild a lily. In it we found this:

“Once when I was at home, an old lady in Denmark gave me twelve fine peony-bulbs which I brought into the country with me at some trouble, as the import regulations about plants were strict. When I had them planted, they sent up, almost immediately, a great number of dark carmoisin curvilinear shoots, and later a lot of delicate leaves and rounded buds. The first flower which unfolded was called Duchesse de Nemours, it was a large single white peony, very noble and rich, it gave out a profusion of fresh sweet scent. When I cut it and put it in water in my sitting-room, every single white person entering the room stopped and remarked upon it. Why, it was a peony! But soon after this, all the other buds of my plants withered and fell off, and I never got more than that one flower.


Duchesse de Nemours (Paeonia lactiflora)

Photo: MOBOT

“Some years later I talked with the English gardener of Lady McMillan, of Chiromo, about peonies. “We have not succeeded in growing peonies in Africa,” he said, “and shall not do so till we manage to make an imported bulb flower here, and can take the seed from that flower. This is how we got Delphinium into the Colony.” In that way I might have introduced peonies into the country and made my name immortal like the Duchesse of Nemours herself; and I had ruined the glory of the future by picking my unique flower and putting it in water.”

“Visitors to the Farm,” Out of Africa

Isak Dinesen, 1937

This vignette, with its fabulous gothic undertones, sent us searching of course for Duchesse de Nemours and into a conundrum. Every reference and photograph we’ve found shows a double white peony, “rich” yes, but perhaps too frilly to warrant “noble.” Could the labels on those bulbs have been shuffled around on the trip from Denmark to Dinesen’s plantation in the Ngong Hills of Kenya?

imageVictoria, Queen of Great Britain

and Princess Victoire, Duchess de Nemours

By Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1852

Photo: World Roots

A side note: we’re not sure which Duchesse of Nemours was immortalized by this beautiful flower. The most famous person to go under that name was Marie d’Orleans, a memorist herself of 17th Century France (Like Blixen, she was an aristocrat with a proto-democratic – or at least anti-royalist – spirit). Far more likely, though, the white peony was named for Queen Victoria’s first cousin – also named Victoria – a favorite childhood playfriend who later became Duchesse of Nemours. She died suddenly at age 35, 10 days after giving birth to her daughter Blanche.

Wouldn’t naming a white peony (single or double)  for such a tragic figure have been just the Victorian response? (well, that and a few necro-decorative artworks).

The horticulturists out there will have to help us evaluate what Lady McMillan’s gardener had to say about introducing peonies to the highlands of Kenya. We’ve found sources that say peonies grow wild in Northwest Africa and some tree peonies have flourished in South African gardens. Anyway, it seems to us that since peonies are perennials, if Dinesen has nursed her first plants along, they might have bloomed better in subsequent years. Cutting that “single” blossom need not have “ruined the glory of the future.”

With Karen Blixen, it’s quite possible the whole white peony story was invented, another fable in the long tale called “Isak Dinesen.” It may outlast marble and all the Duchesses of Nemours.

Posted by Julie on 09/30 at 12:11 PM
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