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Sunday, May 04, 2008

Proto-Peony Pilgrim, at Ashland

Too early for the flower show, but just in time for a zillion blinking buds.


Cyndy Clark overlooks the heavily budded peony bed

at Ashland, the Henry Clay home, Lexington, KY

Photo: Human Flower Project

Religious pilgrims go in certainty; they know the saint’s fingerbone, kept in a golden box since the second century, will be there at the cathedral, whenever they arrive. It’s floral pilgrims who need faith or, short of that, an open-mind. The forsythia’s over, and so are the weeping cherries, but you had forgotten about lilacs. The peonies aren’t in their glory, but the buds are.

With friend and gardener Cyndy Clark, we made our pilgrimage to the big peony garden at Ashland, a historic home in Lexington, Kentucky, one week ago. Only five or six beautiful clumps were flowering; most of the garden was leafy and covered with huge plump buds.

imageBud with juice, and bloom, Ashland, Lexington, KY

Photo: Human Flower Project

The Garden Club of Lexington installed the bricklined peony beds in 1986. “Dozens of Saunders hybrid peonies were donated by Bobbi Van Meter in honor of her mother, Alice McIlvain Prewitt, owner of Walmac Farm.” Mrs. Prewitt had been a longtime member of the club, which maintains the walled garden at Ashland, too.

A.P. Sauders was an early peony hybridizer from Canada.  We wish we could tell you names of these particular cultivars, in bud and in bloom, but we found no tags anywhere (it really wouldn’t be in keeping with Lexington style, you know).

Now about those buds…Some, tight and green, looked like brussell sprouts – has anyone ever eaten one and can account for how they taste? Others buds were blinking, “tears” at the edge of chartreuse, pink, and wine-purple eyes. A few more had cracked like eggs, with pink, cupped feathers lifting open.

True peony lovers know that different varieties open at different times through the season (generally early May through early July). For the peony gluttons out there (count us in!) here’s a website that purports to offer a seven week cycle of flowers, with varieties grouped by their bloom dates. Florists are intensely interested in the habits of peony buds, too, as these prized cut-flowers ship at bud stage.

The most curious feature of the Ashland peony garden is what’s NOT there – ants – even though many hundreds of buds were secreting shiny syrup.

Our mother’s peonies in Louisville have always had ants circumnavigating the buds. We’d thought that ants were somehow good for these flowers. (Peony buds attract wasps, too.)


Ants aplenty on Anne Ardery’s peonies, in Louisville, Kentucky

Photo: Human Flower Project

“The garden myth is that peonies need ants on them in order for the buds to open properly,” wrote Hanna at This Garden is Illegal, in May 2006. “This is not true. A peony bud will open just as well with or without the ants.”  She goes on to write that the ants do prey on other insects that can be harmful to peonies. So perhaps it’s “mythological” in the best sense: true, but not widely understood.


One of the early Saunders peonies at Ashland, April 27, 2008

Photo: Human Flower Project

Today we imagine that Ashland’s garden is in full blowsy flower, swarming with people. Henry Clay, the Kentucky politician who once lived here, is famous for telling his fellow U.S. Senators: “I had rather be right than president.”

REALLY, Henry? Well, you got at least half your wish. Loving the garden in bud, we can’t go so far as preference. We had rather found the peonies in bloom.

Posted by Julie on 05/04 at 03:44 PM
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