Peonies and Their Ants
And their sisters and their cousins whom they reckon up by dozens… no, no, just joking, but there are all kinds of nifty peonies.
And all of them have ants. Long ago, some observant gardener noticed that ants on peony buds always meant the flowers would open soon. Always. And so a bit of folk wisdom was born: Peonies cannot open until ants eat away the seal that keeps the buds closed.
I grew up believing this, my mother went to her grave believing it, and just the other day I heard it repeated again. But it isn’t true. The thing the ants are eating is nectar, not glue, and what this does for the peony is make sure there are plenty of ants around to eat any soft-bodied insects that might like to eat peonies.
This bud belongs to a super-early short peony that opens almost a month before the common (lactiflora) kind. It was here when we got the house and all we know about it is that it’s tough. The double flowers last a long time, too, a mixed blessing given that they are – to put it kindly – magenta.
When these fern leaf peony buds open the flowers will be single, in a clear true red. They’ll last about 35 seconds. And that nifty foliage will disappear by midsummer. Catalogs that describe fern leafs ( P. tenuifolia ) as rare and special seldom mention these attributes, but it’s something to bear in mind before plunking down large dollars. Oh, also they take several years to settle in and start blooming well. On the good side, they’re indestructible, even in acid soil that gets only a few hours of sun. And once you have them, you have them. Even small bits of root make new plants.
Ok, ok, here’s a picture of an actual peony, probably Queen Victoria, one of the antique varieties that came with the place.
Peony Tips Worth Repeating:
*They do need sun, but not that much; with most varieties you can get decent flowers from a half day’s worth and the farther south you are, the more the peonies can use a break from broiling afternoons.
* Be sure to plant shallowly – those fat growth buds should be no more than an inch and a half below ground. The number one cause of bloom failure is over-deep planting… or, over time, the gradual movement of compost and mulch that buries those buds as effectively as if you had done it yourself.
* They don’t like acid soil; if rhododendrons are doing great, better you add some lime to the peony bed before you start planting.
* Fall is the best time to plant. Potted peonies can go in the ground now, but the bare root kind – the kind with all the dazzling choices – must be planted in fall.
* No peony parts in the compost! The Botrytis blight that plagues them – their own personal fungus: Botrytis paeoniae – is ever present, even on apparently healthy growth, so everything that leaves the peony bed should stay gone: discarded bouquets , the fall cleanup pile, Everything. Burn it if you can, toss it deep into the woods where no peonies will ever grow, or be deeply retrogressive and send it to the landfill.
* Peonies last a long time as cut flowers and can be held in bud stage for a month or more – if you have the room in the refrigerator. For an exhaustive and very useful treatment of cut-flower choices and procedures, download Fresh Cut Peonies, from Kansas State University.