This week I had the pleasure of talking with Matt Galloway, at the CBC Metro Morning studio, about one of my favourite things: peonies. The link to the peony interview is here. Why am I a self-confessed peony nut? Well, growing ‘Festiva Maxima’ peonies was my first garden success. Waaay back, thirty years ago when I was scrounging for (free) plants in my first ever in-ground garden I came upon a row of peonies at an abandoned farmhouse. I dug a few and planted them at my country schoolhouse, and they have been blooming for me ever since. Getting bigger and better every year, all with no help at all from me. Peonies, if you have the right conditions, are almost the perfect beginner plant. In my case, I had full sun and sandy loam soil which made them very happy. Many years later I was able to identify my peonies as ‘Festiva Maxima’, a large white peony with a random red fleck on its petals.
All my gardens prior to this, as an apartment dweller, were roof or balcony gardens, so I was thrilled to finally have a perennial that would come back year after year. And what a perennial! The blousy lushness of the flower heads, the beautiful foliage. Cut flowers every June, vases filled to overflowing. And then, there’s the scent, which to me is the main attraction. Peonies in the house: the essence of June.
We all love to sink our noses into those gorgeous peony flowers, but what do peonies actually smell like? Well there are differences in varieties—and some newer varieties, often the deep red ones, and many singles—sadly, have no smell at all. This can lead to confusion for the scent obsessed—like those (like me) who haunt online perfume discussion sites:
I’m puzzled by the references to fragrances that contain Peony or have a peony note. I have several varieties growing in my garden from white to pink and a deep magenta, and I am not able to find any scent in any of these flowers.
Am I anosmic to peony? Is there a variety that truly has a peony scent?
Oh, yes. There are. And I’ve been making a list for quite a while. My ‘Festiva Maxima’, an old variety dating back to 1851, has almost a soapy smell, there’s an underlying scent of freshness, of growing things, and then that indescribable sweetness of a true peony. Some peonies have a citrusy or rose scent; Some are described as spicy or, on the negative side, with a strong but not sweet smell, (which are the ones I might stay away from).
Some have detected unpleasant scents of fish or sulphur in certain peonies. I confess I’ve not encountered these, but I’ll keep my nose open next time I sniff a new variety. The main quality I search for in a peony is that true old fashioned, strong, sweet fragrance. When searching for a way to describe the scent of a peony I was led to a perfume discussion where this comment appeared:
It’s true some modern peonies have virtually no smell but the old bushes we had in the garden when I was growing up smelled strong enough to make you faint. It’s a beautiful unique scent and once you smell it you won’t forget it.
As our nose’s olfactory organ leads directly to our brain and memory, (without passing Go and collecting $200) the deep sensations we feel when inhaling the peony can take us back powerfully to our childhoods when we first encountered the scent. Like wine and roses, people will be forever searching for adjectives to describe something that can be very difficult to grasp in words. I mostly go with the phrase my mum often used, “Mmmmm, heavenly!”
Strongly Fragrant Peony Varieties
‘Edulis Superba’, (from 1824) is one of my peonies, a gift from my sister, who wasn’t able to grow it well in her sandy Toronto garden. It’s one of the oldest and has one of the best peony scents. Edulis means edible, apparently!
‘Cora Stubbs‘, pink, a heavenly scent. Above ink takes you to Peony’s Envy, one of the best names for a garden centre ever. We also wrote about it, where we discovered it at the Scarborough historical Cornell Campbell farm here.
‘Eden’s Perfume’, on my wish list.
Here is a useful compendium of peonies, in PDF format, from the Michigan University Peony Garden