The “peony man” was at the Farmer’s Market around the first of June and we bought everything that was left in his bucket. The peonies seem to get more beautiful every year: pink, white and now many shades of red, even apricot, and coral. Singles, doubles, semi-doubles, Japanese, anemones. Turns out the beautifully- scented peony is the State Flower of Indiana. Originally from China, they’ve been in the U.S. since around 1800.
I remember them as a child in Boonville, Missouri. The good Sisters of St. Joseph arranged them with white spiraea and irises for the church altars. Old-fashioned flowers for an old-fashioned church.
Peonies show up around here after lilacs, about the same time as iris, before tawny daylilies bloom along our roads. They don’t grow wild here, but they’re very hearty and often live 50 or more years. They keep blooming long after the people who planted them are “planted” themselves. Sometimes you can find them where houses used to be. They’re not wild; just kind of abandoned. Peonies are among the few flowers I actually buy.
Pointing to a tall vase containing a beautiful, green-leafed tree branch, a tall, blond, Swedish docent at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin in Wisconsin, once proclaimed to her tour group, “Bring the outside in! Bring the outside in! How simple can it be?” Mr. Wright spent a lifetime learning how human-built structures interacted with nature (as well as humans). Whenever I can, I bring the outside in.
Around here it starts when daffodils bloom defiantly yellow out of the grey-brown leaves of last year’s fall, as if The Master Decorator needed random bits of color to accent exploding golden forsythia. Then fuzzy little sleeping caterpillars slowly unfurl into gigantic ferns, and birdsong wakes us up in the morning while swamplands host a symphony of peeping froglets determined against all odds to fall in love.
Pretty soon it’s late May and it’s time to steal lilacs--before the deer get at them. We don’t take them from behind fences. Certainly not from front yards. Not from places any person is likely to own them. We take them from, you know, forgotten places, public lands, quiet little out-of-the-way spaces where houses used to be. They planted lilacs there and sometimes peonies and daylilys because their exuberant blooms are so welcome after a long gray winter.
Every time I drive through any of the small towns around here I note where the lilacs thrive—in other peoples’ yards. No, I say, too bad, not for me. Oh that’s a gorgeous one! A French one (they’re darker and smell the best)! A white one! Nope. They belong to somebody else.
But when it’s dark and not too blowy, I grab my nippers (actually I keep a pair in the truck) and my husband and I head down country roads we’ve known for years. It’s best to spot them in the daytime and sneak back at night when nobody’s looking, just in case we might be breaking some law or other. A little bit of moon helps too, because at night, the purple blossoms are just smudge of darker black on a big black bush.
I think Walt Whitman, that old flower-thief, loved them too.
“When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d”, he wrote, “And the great star early droop’d in the western sky at night. . .”
He knew where to find them.
“In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash’d palings,
“Stands the lilac bush, tall growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
“With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume strong I love
‘With every leaf a miracle. . . and from this bush in the door-yard,
“With delicate-colored blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
“A sprig, with it’s flower, I break.”
Yep, he swiped it. But Mr. Whitman was no wussy when it came to purloining the purple bush’s majesty. Is one enough? Never. Twenty, too many? Not a chance. Granted, he was writing about the death of President Abraham Lincoln, and he elevated huge bouquets of pilfered lilacs into an elegy for all the dead.
“I cover you with roses and early lilies;
“But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
“Copious I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes;
“With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
“For you, and the coffins all of you. . ..
Well, we’re not nicking lilacs for the dead people. We’re doing it to celebrate the end of winter, the longer days, the dazzling glory of old-fashioned ways, and to bring “the outside” “in”.
By, the way: we do dogwood, too. And ferns. And sumac. And lots of things I don’t know the names for. Maple branches in the fall. Firs look great in a tall vase. The bouquets are really little shrines. Mr. Wright and Mr. Whitman would be darn proud.
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