29 Prairial: Pivoine (peony, Paeonia spp.)
Millin made me do a double-take: “This plant is only grown as an ornamental. It has a disagreeable odor.” Cue the record-scratching sound, the stunned expressions from everyone on the dance floor, etc. etc. Peonies smell bad? What the heck kind of peonies was Millin hanging out with? The peonies I grew up with had the most voluptuous opulent sweet scent to them. Well—okay, it turns out that some peonies do smell bad. In fact some people have described varieties that smell like “carrion,” “ugh—pungent, head shaking nose clinging,” “2 week old ROAD KILL,” and “dead dehydrated fish.” As to what kind of peonies Aubin-Louis Millin knew in 1794, it seems likely that they were the commonest European species, Paeonia officinalis, which had been cultivated and used medicinally for centuries. Most garden peonies now are hybrids and varieties of Chinese peonies, which began to be brought to Europe at the end of the 18th century. Does Paeonia officinalis smell disagreeable? Perhaps someone who has gotten close to one can tell us—but can you still find a peony with the same qualities as a 1794 French peony?
The peonies I grew up with also had ants. This is the way of the peony. I gather there’s a bit of folklore out there about the ants helping the peony buds to open. I had never heard that, and Iowa State U says it’s not true; but the ants, attracted by nectar on the outside of the swelling buds, do perhaps keep off damaging insect pests. And here we come back to the complications of cultivation. As this Living with Insects Blog points out, the peonies we meet in gardens have been bred for various horticultural traits and have moved a long way from the conditions that saw their evolution. So…what do wild peonies do with their ants?