March 7, 2006 > PAEONIA
by Pat Kite
Against my better judgment, I have purchased a peony bush. Even though I know Tri-City is clay soil country, with drying wind whistling in the afternoon, and my watering memory floats on cloud 9 sometimes, a packet of herbaceous Karl Rosenfeld, a dark red variety, just found its way into my shopping basket. I place the blame on a journal article that touted peonies as being easy to grow. Probably easy for Martha Stewart. But it is springtime planting season, and anything that looks like a flower almost causes a Pavlovian salivate.
In ancient Chinese times, the blossoms of Shaoyao, translating as "charming and beautiful," were used as love tokens among young people. An alternate name was "Chiang Li," or farewell flower. Blossoms were given to a departing friend as a friendship remembrance.
Herbaceous Chinese peonies reached England about 1800. From here, they were among the first flowers carried by early colonists to the new world of America. Hybridizers, of course, went to work. Now flowers can be single, semi-double, or double, ranging up to 10 inches across. They may be cream, pink, red, or pure yellow. Some are quite fragrant, with an aroma, it is said, like old-fashioned roses.
Peonies are blessed with ample folklore. On story says Pluto, ruler of the underworld, had gotten into a fight with the three-headed Cerberus, the watchdog of Hades. Pluto asked young Paeon, physician of the gods, to heal him. Paeon got all excited and sought advice from the god Apollo's mother. She gave him some magic herbal medicine and Pluto quickly healed up.
However egos being what they are, Aesculapius, the god of medicine and healing, plus Apollo's son, figured he should have been given the job, and the magic herb, to heal old Pluto. So he concocted some of his own special herbs and caused young Paeon's demise.
Now Pluto was mad. The kid had saved him. But what to do, since Paeon was already dead and Pluto didn't have the powers to revive him. So he did the next best thing. He turned Paeon's body into the magic plant that had been used to heal him. Thus it was that Paeon became a paeony, the first herb, according to this myth, ever to be used in medicine.
To grow: Make a hole about 12 inches deep. Fill with a mixture of purchased soil and Tri-City soil. Place peony tuber in the ground. The tubers have little "eyes," like potatoes. These eyes shouldn't be any deeper than 2 inches. The reason you need the humongous hole is peonies are very long lived, and they need sensible root space. Once you plop your peony into place, do not move it. It gets insulted and won't bloom for several years.
Peonies like sunshine, but need some afternoon shade if it gets really hot where you are. Give them regular watering in the summer. If you really get into peonies, there are also tree varieties. But that's another story.
Have fun buying plants, then figuring where to put them. Happily, spring has finally begun springing.