What Peonies Say

In spite of the fact that the USDA revised  hardiness zones a few years ago, some people still insist climate change is a myth. Those of us who love peonies know things have changed.

First peonies of the season

There was a time when you could find me driving to northern Indiana on a coolish Saturday morning in mid June with armfuls of freshly cut peonies stuffed into a bucket of sloshing water to deliver to my dad for Father’s Day. His peonies were in bud, ants munching away to free the blossoms, but they had not yet opened. He and I share a love of the scent of peonies and I loved giving him that pleasure for Father’s Day. I didn’t need the air conditioning in the car; a partly cracked window provided just enough of a breeze to keep me cool and the delicate petals intact. I’d savor their scent for the three hour drive, thinking of love and fatherhood and the gifts of the earth and cool, early summer joy.

Now? The same peonies bloom for Mother’s Day. A clear month earlier. Their scent is still magical, at least to some of us, and they are still bold and delicate at the same time, part of what makes me love them. They are still ephemeral, too, dropping their blossoms all at once in a heap much like a freshly disrobed woman in a Victorian novel. But they are earlier than they used to be.

Mid season peony

This year, as I cut the first ones three days before Mother’s Day and brought them in to savor their scent, I was reminded of a college dorm room in Hastings, Nebraska in late June lots of years ago. I was attending a graduate seminar on the writings of Willa Cather and after spreading a crisp quilt over the twin bed as I settled in the first night, I opened the windows and discovered an entire bed of peonies scenting the cool night air just under the window by my bed. All week, at the end of each day’s intellectual rigors, I’d stretch out under that quilt and drink in the scent of my favorite flower. Mid June. Cool Nights. Peonies.

Late season peonies

Now peonies are spring, not summer, flowers. Like Mary Oliver in her poem “Peonies” I “fill [my] arms with the white and pink flowers, with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling, their eagerness to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are nothing forever.” I have just moved my love up a month.

Cindy Briggs

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