My Grandmother’s Peonies

NYBG peonies--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowQuick, what do the following have in common? Moonstone, hot chocolate, eskimo pie, John Harvard, and Madame Butterfly? If you guessed that they’re all varieties of peonies, you’d be correct. They come in a range of hues (John Harvard being crimson, of course). But all are part of an elegant family of old-fashioned flowers, marked by their intoxicating fragrance and lush, pillowy blossoms. The flowers are so appealing that, as a friend says, “It’s almost as if they have a soul.”

Peonies have been on my mind a lot lately—my grandmother’s peonies, to be precise. But these aren’t flowers that bloom only in my memory. These are actual peonies in my garden. Peonies can live to over 100 years old—and last weekend, to my amazement, my aunt gave me some of these treasured family heirlooms.

Grannie Lisbie's peoniesMy grandmother dug up these pink peonies (photos left and below) out of her parents’ garden in Connecticut in 1920 and took them with her to South Salem, NY, as a young bride. That makes them nearly 100–and possibly older. They later moved with her to Washington, D.C. She then gave some to my father, and they made multiple moves with us—to Virginia and ultimately full circle to my parents’ last house in Connecticut, just 15 minutes’ drive from my grandmother’s childhood home. There they stayed when my mother sold the place in 1991. I’ve long regretted that there was no “peony exclusion” in the contract, so that we could take the plants with us. I’ve even thought recently about calling the current owners to see if the peonies are still there.

Then last weekend, my aunt mentioned that she had a whole strip of my grandmother’s peonies in her back yard, and noted in passing she should give some away. I don’t think she meant, “I should give some away right now to whoever happens to be sitting on my porch,” but I immediately jumped at the offer.

Of course, spring is not the ideal season for transplanting them. Fall is best. (Here’s how to do it right.) My new arrivals are looking a little droopy alongside the other peonies I bought earlier this year. But they’re hanging in, like the survivors they are. As my aunt says, “They’re hardy plants.” They can outlive us all.
Grannie Lisbie's peonies--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

To learn more about the care and handling of peonies, click here.
Or, if you just want to admire some of the stunning diversity of peony blossoms, click here. In the photo below are my Bowl of Cream peonies from Monrovia. I won’t be around in 100 years, but I hope these stunning beauties will.
Monrovia Bowl of Cream peonies--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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