It happens to me every spring: I’ll see a friend pull a peony blossom to her nose, give a rapturous sniff, and state in a voice of bliss that it’s her absolute favorite flower on earth. And once again, I’ll try not to hate this plant.
“Peoniacs,” and there are many, loudly declare the peony’s charms: They’re big, they’re scented, and they grow well without fuss. It’s all true. A single flower can fill up a vase, the aroma can perfume an entire house, and they’re so hardy you can’t even get rid of them when you toss them unceremoniously onto a spot with soil so bad even weeds won’t grow.
But to my eyes, their size is bloat, not beauty, and their smell has the potency of cheap perfume. And that legendary hardiness? I believe it’s just called stubborn.
Peonies are blowzy, busty blooms, the puff-haired, gum-smacking diner waitresses of the floral world. Even their friends are creepy. Ever see a peony bud that wasn’t covered with ants? The two have some kind of symbiotic relationship, I’ve heard, but a more decent flower would partner with butterflies.
But of all this flower’s faults, the worst is its complete inability to self-support. Their open blossoms are so ridiculously top-heavy that, left unstaked, they simply dive right into the dirt. One moderate downpour and every pretty petal has turned to brown mush.
Unfortunately, I don’t know a single soul who shares my peony opinions. Most people seem very fond of the flower, and not just for the obvious reasons. “I never really notice their smell,” one friend told me. “What I like is how often you find them growing in the woods where a house used to be.”
In early spring, another friend showed me the peony pots in his greenhouse, which at that point were just glistening red stems. “They make a great cut flower,” he said. “And what other plant do you see showing this much growth at this time of year?”
I pointed to another shiny, red-leaved plant that wasn’t exactly in his greenhouse, but growing up the back of it: poison ivy.
I’m aware that my peony antipathy is not only acutely personal; it’s also perhaps a bit unfair. I can trace it to my very first encounter with the plant in the yard of a house I rented with friends in college. All spring I watched curiously as thick stems snaked from the garden bed by the back door and then erupted into impossibly huge buds. But there was a starling nest in the eaves above the peony bush, and just as the buds began to open, newly hatched baby birds began plunging into the plant. Did the nestlings tumble accidentally or did their parents do some culling? Whatever the cause, soon, the stench of bird decay was competing with the aroma of the blossoms. I found the two were horribly similar: pungent, sweet, ultimately sickening. And though this happened over thirty years ago, for me the scent of peony and the emotion of disgust will be forever mingled.
My revulsion for this flower is a directive from the land of prejudice, not perspective. But my brain is a voting partner in my life as well, and sometimes it wonders whether what I really dislike might not be peonies at all, but starlings. Or maybe not starlings but their not-so-great parenting. Or maybe not parenting, but the smell of dead nestlings. Or not even the smell of dead nestlings, but the way it ruined forever my ability to appreciate a widely beloved flower.
I have a favorite flower as well, and it’s one few would choose for this designation. Portulaca, also called moss rose, is a cactus-like annual that could have originated on Mars. It has fleshy, fingerlike leaves, and its completely scentless flowers, which are mostly found in shades of safety orange and fluorescent pink, develop into weird pods bursting with tiny seeds. But my very earliest flower memory is of sitting on a gravel path next a bed of portulacas behind my grandfather’s cottage and pulling off pod after pod of seed caps, so I could spread the seeds. To this day, I can’t have a garden without a bed of portulaca, and I can’t see a portulaca without thinking of my grandfather.
And I can’t smell a peony without thinking of dead bird. The roots of my peony prejudice are so thoroughly tangled that I may never be able to pull them apart, but I think I’m willing to try. I could start by grabbing a shovel and digging up that disdain-immune peony that still flowers every spring even though I pulled it out of my garden and threw it in the gravel next to the driveway several years back. I could find it an honored place in fertile garden soil and then corset, cage, and wire so it can hold its mighty petaled heads high.
Forgiveness. It’s a wonderful trait. Who knows? I may learn to practice it so well I’ll become a peoniac myself.
But there’s still that ant/bud thing.
So no. Not a chance.