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The Mystery Of The Peonies

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

When we moved to our house eight years ago, I found several peony bushes planted by the shady west wall.  They bloomed abundantly in the spring, but their huge pink flowers had no smell:

I couldn\’t believe that someone would plant scent-free peonies, but took consolation in the fact that they were also ant-free.

A few years later I made a flower bed by the stone wall in front of the house, and needed big plants that would look good all season long, even when they weren\’t blooming.  I like the looks of a peony bush, flowers or no flowers, so I walked around to the shady spot where the pink peonies lived and transplanted six or seven of them to the new bed.

The bushes rooted well, died down to the ground in the winter, and sprang to life the next spring.  Soon they were covered in buds, but when the flowers opened one sunny morning, they were almost pure white…and they gave off clouds of that unmistakable, that divine, peony smell.

Every year since then the peonies have put on their show:  pink and unscented and ant-free on the shady west side, white and perfumed and beloved of ants in the sunny spot.

How can this be?  I can imagine that a change in soil composition might cause the change in color, as hydrangea aficionados know.  And perhaps the sun exposure has something to do with it.  But the truly miraculous part, the scent that would cause me to plant peonies even if they looked like crab grass, remains a mystery.

If any of you botanists, peony-loving gardeners, or lyric poets out there have a theory, I\’d like to hear from you.

12 Responses

  1. It seems your peonies have mutated themselves and what they have lost in color, they have gained in scent. Nature takes and gives in return according to her fancy. It is not for us to question why. I am jealous of what you've got and would give a lot to have it.

  2. Transplant two to a different location and see what happens. It's hard to transplant Peonies so congratulations on success. They are such lucious blooms!

  3. My guess, Eulalia (& with a name like that, aren't you supposed to live in Virginia or Alabama?), is that these are not the same peonies–that what you dug up were roots/tubers from peonies that were no longer blooming because they'd been planted too deep or weren't getting enough of something, especially sunlight. Peonies wouldn't change, at least not significantly, i.e., color & scent, with a change in nutrients (as hydrangeas do). By the way, that rosy peony scent is great, but things could be worse than the scentlessness of your pink ones. One of my coral peonies (and I don't know if it's Hawaiian Coral, Coral Sunset, or some other whose name I've forgotten) smells FETID, which came as a rude surprise when I buried my nose in a flower for the first (and last) time.

  4. Hi Ellen, you sound knowledgeable about peonies, so I'll take your word for it that I dug up a different kind of peony altogether…and be grateful they weren't the fetid-smelling ones.As for my name, I am originally from Barcelona, and was named after the patron saint of the city. In my case, Eulalia is just a down-home Catalan name.

  5. Love that painting–the calm expressions on Sant Jordi and the maiden, though the horse and the dragon do look alarmed. And Orwell's \”Homage To Catalonia\” is indeed wonderful. I remember my parents, who survived the Spanish Civil War, saying that it was the only book written by a foreigner that really told the truth….

  6. or it could be as simple as copper pipes. My mom had hydrangeas near the kitchen that were a beautiful blue. She replanted some and they grew in pink. Turns out the blue was caused by the copper leaching from the kitchen pipes.

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