Friday, May 28, 2010

Pretty pictures: Paeonia cvv.

Peonies have always struck me as a little too -- too froofy, too big, too campy. Like a falling-down-drunk drag queen with half a watermelon on her head, trying to do a Carmen Miranda impersonation and angrily insisting that everybody watch. Not just excessive, but somehow embarrassingly excessive.

And the ant thing doesn't help, either.

But as with most things, they become interesting if you look at them closely enough. And this first one, frankly, knocks my socks off. Not saying I'm ready to buy one for the yard, but I can see why somebody would, now.1

I was also not previously aware that there existed yellow-flowering peonies. This seems . . . wrong. Though if it's not screaming hot pink, I suppose I could be okay with it. I still haven't seen any yellow peonies actually planted in someone's yard -- this one is from a garden center in Iowa City a few weeks ago.

This is more what I think of when I think "peony." Ostrich-feather fans, Vegas showgirls, those new kinds of fireworks that seem to explode for a minute and a half, blue-dyed chrysanthemums2 the size of a baby's head. It's not terrible, viewed on its own terms, but I don't think I could handle having one of these in the yard.

This last one is of a tree peony, which are a lot less common around here. In fact, I think there may only be one in the entire town. It's a monster -- probably eight feet across and four feet tall, loaded with blooms -- and maybe that's part of why more people don't plant them. I tried taking photos of the whole thing, and they didn't turn out well (still learning the new camera3), so you don't get to see, but it was impressive. And the blooms, individually, aren't terrible either.


1 And by the way -- do fern-leaf peonies only bloom for like three days and then that's it? I tried to get a halfway decent picture when they all bloomed here a few weeks ago, and failed, but didn't figure it was a big deal, because they're peonies, they'll bloom again. But they haven't bloomed again. Any of them. The foliage is interesting, and the flowers are okay when present, but considering how expensive they are, I'm sort of shocked that the show isn't any longer than this.
2 Chrysanthemums -- at least the bigger spider-mum types -- elicit the same feelings in me as peonies. Maybe worse. When I was in high school, while we were living in South Texas, it was apparently the fashion for boys to give their girlfriends these enormous corsage-like things at Homecoming time, which usually had one or more spider mums, plus like a mile of ribbons in the school colors, and glitter, possibly sequins (?), photographs, this whole gigantic production. (I swear to you: I remember one girl's Homecoming thingie very vividly because there was a cowbell included. A cowbell!) With the ribbons and everything, they usually stretched down to the floor, or almost to the floor, the girls wore them all day, and I never really understood the purpose. Unless the purpose was just to let everybody know that they had boyfriends. They weren't even single-day things, necessarily; I don't remember whether people wore them every day for a week, or if it just seemed like that because different girls were wearing them on different days for a week. It was one of those bits of culture shock I never understood or even asked about.
I assume (hope?) it was just a South Texas thing. It might have even been a South-Texas-in-the-late-80s thing. I mean, this was also the period when all the girls were trying to get their bangs to look like a wave cresting a foot above their heads, and a lot of them wore dresses and skirts from time to time with two-foot wide decorative bows sewed on the back.
Somehow only the Homecoming flowers seemed strange to me at the time. Tall hair and bows the size of bald eagles didn't strike me as peculiar until after I'd been out of school for a while. Fashion, I suppose.
3 Mainly the problem is that with the previous camera, I had a much smaller range of options. Basically I could shoot super close-up, kinda close-up, or far away, and I could do it with or without a flash. I mean, there were other options, but they rarely worked, so I didn't bother. The new camera, though, will let me darken or lighten the whole picture, and has a separate thing for sun, clouds, incandescent light, three different kinds of fluorescent light, plus the really-close, close, or far option. I can change the pictures after uploading them, somewhat, to adjust the color for occasions like when I have it set to sunny and it actually should have been set to fluorescent #2, but -- this is tedious to do when it works, and it doesn't always work. And red or purple things in super-bright sun always turn out badly and non-fixably no matter what the settings.


Don said...

Mr Subjunctive:

Lovely pics as always.

However, I'd have enjoyed a pic of that enormous tree peony bush, not just the flower. In fact, I'm realizing that your photos of landscape plants rarely include anything besides the flower. And the architecture of the plant, and its foliage, are usually just as important for judging its impact in the landscape. Sometimes, as with your photo of Euphorbia cyparissias, it makes it harder to do an ID if all you focus on is the flower.

PS It is possible to prune a tree peony, though I think you'd need a heart of stone to face the job.

ScottE. said...

The house I bought just over 2 years ago had a tree peony. The former owner left us specific instructions to not cut it back each fall. The first year we didn't. Last year we did a little trim. It's still small, more of a shrub. But very pretty when those giant pink blooms open up.

Here's a photo we took of it:

Anonymous said...

As for the common peonies, my reaction is a little bit of a phhht, too poofy and too likely to fall face down in the mud as a result. Japanese peonies, single and more elegant and with strong stems that hold the flowers up are what I plant and enjoy (they do tend to be more expensive though). And the fern leafed peony is one heck of a gorgeous plant. The initial cost may seem high but mine spread rapidly and in a few years become extensive masses. That solves the problem of bloom - with lots of stems the flowers just keep coming and coming. And bless peonies for their hardiness - anything that loves to live here is already tops in my book.

Check out a white Japanese peony and you'll never think drag queen again.

Karen715 said...

I love peonies, but the hot pink ones are definitely my least favorite. (Your pictures are beautiful, even still.) I love the reds, the yellows and the pale pinks, though. I don't have any in my garden, yet. Maybe when we get serious in backyard.

mr_subjunctive said...


Your concerns are noted, though your comment gets gets right up to the edge of complaining about the free ice cream.

Sheba and I haven't been walking near the tree peony in question for quite a while -- it's on the opposite side of town, and it's been hot, and so lately I'm just trying to get her out and walk her for a minimal amount of time before we can get back home and I can be back in the air conditioning again. If/when the opportunity presents, I'll try to get a picture of the whole plant for you.


Most of the pictures that came up when I Google searched for "japanese peonies" looked basically the same as the other peonies to my eye, but they did seem to be standing up better. Which I've realized in the last couple days is also part of my problem with peonies, that they flop over in the rain and then lie there in the mud. (Which is also sort of a drunk drag-queeny thing to do.)

On the fern-leaf peonies: there are at least four people in town who have some, three of which have somewhat dense blocks of them, but none of them have rebloomed since the first round three or four (?) weeks ago. They all bloomed as a group, and all stopped as a group, from what I can tell.

Not that you have to have a response to that. I'm just reporting that that's what they did.


I think I like the light pinks best, though I've seen some whites from afar that looked sort of interesting. (No pictures, because they were too afar.) I wonder how come, if there are yellows, and there are pinks, why there are no oranges. (There are not oranges, right?) An orange peony sounds intriguingly wrong to me.

Erin said...

I'm also not a big peony fan, except as a cut flower. If I ever get a yard and can have a cutting garden, I'm positive it'll have a peony or two.

Unknown said...

Here in the NW they are much loved, but one spring rain tramples the blooms and then you have to wait for another long year. I don't really get the appeal because of that, but I love to see them in other peoples' gardens. I'll take giant Dahlias anytime over Peonies.

Karen715 said...

Mr._S: I've never seen a deep orange, but I have seen a pale peach shade, which was lovely.

I really love orange flowers, but somehow, I think, an orange peony would be too much--very much in the drunken drag queen category.

Jenn said...

If I remember - the yellow peonies are out-crosses with the tree peonies.

My favorite peony is scented - Festiva Maxima. It's blowsey, and the scent isn't the kind that wafts - you need to get close to enjoy it, but it smells wonderful.

Just info for you, that's all.

mr_subjunctive said...

Erin & Jenn:

I hadn't been thinking about peonies as cut flowers, but that idea appeals to me quite a bit more than using them as landscaping plants. They're interesting up close, and there's usually (at least with the ones around here) a fragrance. Not my favorite scent ever, but pleasant. So okay. I'll allow that they're useful as cut flowers, and not terrible in the landscape.

Ivynettle said...

I've never cared much for big flowers, so I'm not overly fond of peonies, either, but if I had a garden again, I'd probably plant one or two out of sheer nostalgia. I like having the plants of my childhood around... and not only did we always have peonies, I also remember using peony petals as cloaks for my Playmobil people. Makes me smile, and how can I not love a plant that wakes cheerful memories like that?

I'd also quite like to have a tree peony. Maybe that's just because they are more unusual, but I also hope that they wouldn't look so ugly outside the flowering season. Ordinary peony foliage really isn't very attractive once the flowers are gone.

Ginny Burton said...

Excuse me, Mr. Subjunctive! You have just trampled all over my high school (1959-1963) dream--those giant mum corsages that every girl at Alamo Heights High School wore, starting at the Thursday pep rallies. Every girl but me. God, how I wanted one. I considered buying myself one, but realized that someone would find out and I would be further humiliated.

We (Texans) called them "football mums."

mr_subjunctive said...

Ginny Burton:

So not just an 80s thing, then. Were there cowbells?

Do you know anything about when/why the whole thing got started? I'd never heard of it before we lived there, and have never seen it anywhere else, so I'm curious.

Ginny Burton said...

I don't know where the trend started, but I'll bet it lives on to this day -- at least in Texas. You know how seriously we take our high school football.

The giant mums balanced the big hair. We had just discovered how to back-comb ("rat") our hair and the look was a giant pouf on top with a flip at the ends. Generally there were poufy bangs with a little bow pinned between the bangs and the crown.

The glitter and ribbons on the corsages were all de rigueur, but cowbells? That must have been either an 80s embellishment, or some South Texas tweak.

Where were you? Harlingen? I've known more gay men from the Valley than any other place in Texas.

mr_subjunctive said...

Ginny Burton:

Sent you an e-mail.

Han Keat Lim said...

I love only tree peonies and hate herbaceous peonies especially those with Japanese flowers, (The one in your first photo) because the flower form reminds me of scoop of ice cream on saucer.

Tree peonies with single and semi double flowers are humble beauties. I collect unique color tree peonies. Yellow (High Noon), orange (Nike), purple and some colors that I can't describe them in one word. I grow all of them in container, because I don't have ground. Here are photos of my tree peonies.

E. Anne Larson said...

Interesting to note that historically, peonies were the cut flower of choice, according to Allan Rogers "Peonies." Buds can be cold stored 6 to 8 weeks and brought out to bloom! I am also an advocate of using the peony in garden designs not just for its bloom but for its durable, clean green foliage which is a great foil for other colorful blooms and foliage during the season.

Lance said...

I love peonies, perhaps, like Ivy, because of childhood memories. Our house growing up had 4 huge and very old plants that had been there at least 30 years. So they bloomed wonderfully and the ants always fascinated me.

I don't, however, like mums. In part because of the homecoming things in school. They were awful. And yes, here in the west Texas panhandle, cowbells were common on them. Usually small ones, but sometimes full sized ones. Tacky and annoying things. Plus I'm allergic to them so just added to the ick for me.