Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Summer in Full Bloom: Peony Memories

We're in the time of Summer Solstice now when summer is in fullest bloom with the longest day and shortest night. To celebrate this time on Riehlife, I'm sharing a peony bouquet plucked from an email correspondence between Susan J. Tweit and my father...about the horticultural history of our homeplace, Evergreen Heights.

Susan Tweit Pink Peony
Photo by Susan Tweit Unknown name. From an assortment of field-grown peonies Susan got as tubers, un-labelled, "but it has the most beautiful fragrance of any peony I've ever known," she says.

Susan is a memoirist, naturalist, and journalist for magazines such as "Audubon," along with producing regular podcasts and her high-level blogposts for her own blog "Community of the Land" and her new Audubon blog "The Perch." Susan and I struck up a writerly sistership first through Women Writing the West and later Story Circle Network where I met her at last and her sculptor husband, Richard.

In Susan's book "The San Luis Valley: Sand Dunes and Sandhill Cranes" she says "What we do best comes not from our heads but our hearts.... Love is what connects us to the rest of the living world, the divine urging from within that guides our best steps in the dance of life."

What better way to express this love than sharing memories of flowers?

When our email conversation turned to peonies, and our memories of decorating the graves on Memorial day, I suggested she contact my father directly...along with the beautiful close-up photos of her peonies.

My great grandfather Riehl was a peony breeder and grower in the late 1800s, and Susan is fascinated with what "heritage plants...that mark the places where we've lived, sometimes persisting long after we are gone."

Pop replied that with a short version, promising a longer version to come: "Some time shortly after the end of WW#1 Memorial Day was established for decorating graves. This led to the commercial growing of cut flowers. Our position in the climate belt made it almost ideal for us to grow peonies and ship them to Chicago for Decoration Day. We had acres of them at one time."

Susan replied to my father's longer version (which you'll read below) saying: "I loved reading your memories of the farm, from asparagus and sweet potatoes to peonies and the harvest. It's interesting that so many farmers today expect to grow the same thing (or two things) from year to year, and also expect someone to step in and 'save' them when crops fail or the market isn't good. How times change. . . .

"I think there are about a jillion varieties of peonies today, but I wonder if the one I call "Old Home Place" (the heritage peony from my 91-year-old mother-in-law's home place in Possum Valley, Arkansas) is Festiva Maxima. It fits your description, down to the 'hard to cut right and not a really good keeper.' But it is surely beautiful in the garden!"

And, now...on to the long version, below.

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2 Responses »

  1. A big sweet-smelling peony bouquet to you, Janet. I've just taken the peony duet further with a look at heritage plants, and what it means to root peonies--and me--in place here at home in Colorado.


  2. We don't know how exactly how nectar-feeding ants help peony blossoms open, but we do know that peonies have nectar-secreting glands on their bud scales specifically to attract them, and that they and peonies have a mutually-beneficial relationship, so it's good that you're sparing the ants at your place. However, if you don't want them in your house, it's easy to repel them in a friendly but firm way: line your baseboards and door and windowsills with sprigs of fresh mint. Mint repels ants but doesn't hurt them, and it'll keep these gals out of the house! (And by the time the mint wilts, they will usually have given up the effort.) Most likely what you have are hungry workers looking for food for their growing colony, so you might also make sure you don't have any sources of sugary liquid they can get to in the house.

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