Peonies of Memory

This weekend, which is Memorial Day weekend not coincidentally, all the peonies are out in our neighborhood.  They are absolutely wonderful with their outrageous flowers as flamboyant as a Can-Can dancer’s petticoats in mid-kick.  I used to grow quite a number of them when I lived in Vermont.  They were incredibly tough.  You could, contrary to popular wisdom, dig up clumps that were decades old and move them without ceremony and the next June there they were in flower again.  We had nothing very fancy there to be sure, only a selection of pale pink doubles of the sort that can be seen next to old farmhouses all across the rural Northeast.

When I grew my cottage garden I had one tree peony as well which produced impossibly huge white flowers the same diameter as a dinner plate.   They were bigger than the Shih-Tzu’s head when he waddled over to smell them and had a very… distinctive smell.  If you don’t garden and aren’t directly familiar with this smell, it’s animalic and floral at the same time, but not really indolic. That is to say there’s nothing evocative of putrefaction going on, because the scent of the peony is the smell of a live animal.

This may explain why the dog was attracted to the smell in the first place, since my dog normally was no olfactory connoisseur, no sir.  Dead squirrel was right up Mr. Tang’s alley as a rule, smelling a flower was a definite break in his habits.  Colette once wrote that peonies smell like cockchafers, a statement even more mystifying than saying nothing would have been, but I think she was referring to this unique live animalic spin that peonies put on their floral scent.

Perfumery has included the peony quite a lot in recent years.  The scent as reproduced in manufactured form though is unsatisfying.  Whatever chemical has been used tends to make florals smell harsh rather than full, and the effect is not at all the same as strolling around gardens in May.  Here the scent is musky in the best sense, rather like your dog’s paws in floral booties.

It should make for a very wearable perfume but to my mind no one has really pulled it off.  The best example I can honestly think of was made by the French Firm Yves Rocher and was simply called Pivoine.  That one was pretty good though still wide of the mark.  I also rather liked the Lancome limited edition Peut Etre, which, though not ever listed as a peony scent, had a gently musky skin florality that was slightly reminiscent of peonies.  I hope the people at Lancome consider bringing it back.

So instead I will recommend some varieties of peony you can grow and enjoy next Memorial Day.

  1. Paeonia Officinalis – the real dogs’ paws one
  2. Festiva Maxima
  3. Vivid Rose
  4. Lowell Thomas


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