Human Flower Project

If Peonies Could Talk


The Pentecost Rose speaks loudly and widely across the Czech Republic.


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Peonies in glass, St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague

Photo: Bill Bishop

“These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!”

Not an iron-clad defense. But that’s what Peter told the crowd at Pentecost (Acts 2) , after the Holy Spirit’s “mighty wind” had sent tongues of fire descending on the Apostles, enabling them to speak all languages and spread the Good News. We grew up in a mainline Protestant sect and had always thought “speaking in tongues” meant babbling—a kind of spiritual seizure, and not what Episcopalians do. Only now we learn it’s the opposite of babble: fluency and multilingualism.

Recently back from the Czech Republic, where our attempts at Czech were met with weak smiles and rapid shifts to English, we have a special appreciation for Pentecost’s miracle of speech. Heading east, we knew that Czech was especially tough for English-speakers to get a handle on, just not how tough. We hadn’t considered that faith might serve us better than Berlitz. In Znojmo, however, we met a young Mormon missionary who kindly volunteered translation help at the tourist office. It took several minutes before we realized he was an American – he was that proficient.

“I learned Czech in about six months,” he told us, “with prayer.”

Today, the Feast of Pentecost, we’re back in the U.S.A., bodily. Mind and spirit are still mostly back in the Old World. Traveling in Southern Moravia and Southern Bohemia, we drove through scores of small towns and saw gardening everywhere, in earnest. Streets were bordered with sidewalks, low walls and metal fences – open enough so that “front yard” plots were visible to passers by. Everywhere we went during these two weeks of mid-May, there were peonies in bloom, nearly all of them magenta red.

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Red peonies and lilies of the valley, detail from one of the windows Max Švabinský designed for St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague

Photo: Bill Bishop

We even spotted them at St. Vitus Cathedral, in Prague, in one of the striking stained glass windows Max Švabinský designed.

Peony (pivoňka) is beloved across Eastern Europe, queen of May. The red peony is Serbia’s national flower. In Germany, it’s known as Pfingstrose, the Pentecost rose. Eger, Hungary, will hold a Pentecost Rose music and dance festival just days from now, June 3.

imageWe also came upon Kati Szvorák’s recording “Pentecost in Central Europe,” featuring religious songs of the season from many countries (four in Czech) and a red peony on the cover

Through the international gardening website blotanical.com we were fortunate to contact Jana Grussova of Kroměříž, Czech Republic, and to read her weblog Růžová zahrada (A Rose Garden). It’s bilingual!

We asked Jana to tell us more about pivoňka, which she calls “our traditional garden plant.”

“I think the situation with peonies is similar to tulips,” Jana writes. “If you visited our country in time of tulips´ blooming, you would probably see mainly the red or yellow ones with simple flower structure. I think nobody knows their varietal name.” These particular flowers have naturalized, she says: “They don´t need any special care in comparison to many breeded varieties, as in removing from the soil and so on. They are just the hardiest ones.

“As are these peonies. I think this peony grows also in my parents´ garden.”

Jana explains that the Czechs have a practical fondness for passalong plants:

“The situation before 1989 differed from other western countries in that there weren´t many things you could buy in our shops. People were used to growing fruits and vegetables to supply themselves but ornamental plants weren´t very popular, and there were only a few nurseries with a limited assortment.”

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Passalong peonies, Třebíč, Czech Republic, May 2009

Photo: Human Flower Project

Jana writes that after 1989, when Communist Party rule was overthrown, the possibilities for gardeners began to change.

“As the western world is discovering a magic of growing vegetables, we are discovering a magic of creating gardens pleasant to our eyes.” She writes that even now, twenty years after the Velvet Revolution, “you still don´t find a wide range of peonies in our garden centres; people perhaps think it´s not any special plant—they’d rather buy overpriced, boring conifers.” Jana knows of only one Czech company with a wide assortment of peonies, and those are expensive. But the magenta peony is “a natural…easily propagated by dividing and so widening from garden to garden.”

Spreading the gospel, as it were.

(Thank you, Jana. Hope we can meet face to face on the next trip, yours or ours.)


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