It is maybe not normal to like peonies as much as I do. Just as it was maybe not normal to like a local band called the Sharks as much as I did when I was in high school. In order to meet the members of the Sharks, I parlayed my high school newspaper credential into something like a press pass that gave me entrée, at 16, into local bars where the Sharks were playing.
To get closer to the peonies, I did something astonishingly similar. It is why I found myself, in mid-May of 2021, alone in a field of many thousands of peony buds, sensing their barely contained energy, how they zapped and scrambled the molecules of the air.
If I could have measured that floral current at Styer’s farm with some kind of device (voltmeter, barometer? Fathometer?), I’m certain the dial would have gone round and round until a spring popped out the side like in a Looney Tunes cartoon. In that moment of anticipation, just before 50,000 peonies bloom, these spring-green fields in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, are seas of champagne bottles under increasing pressure to pop.
A week later, the buds burst and showered gorgeousness in all directions, unbound, at the height of their powers—a peony-studded landscape that rolls and envelops the visitor. You think you’ve seen the zenith of lushness here, but then over there…you wander, finding everything floriferous, scented, petal-fresh, a wide carpet of blossoms. They speak in shades of watered taffeta: cloud white, blush, candied shell pink, the rosy-orange of sunset.
If I just slow my breathing, lie back, could I maybe trust-fall into a densely packed acre of Coral Charm peonies? The pink-orange blooms would hold me aloft, I am certain, float me over and under and through their neural network of thousands of stems and buds and petals, the way the ocean welcomes and propels a mermaid.
What is all this unhinged talk of mermaid-diving into flowers?
Blame it on the peony prompt. Writers, especially aspiring ones, use prompts to rein in the limitless possibilities and start writing about a defined set of circumstances. A prompt could be something like this:
- A new employee goes to the boss’s house for dinner and finds he lives in a treehouse.
- A fourth grader starts a successful website for singles.
- A 53-year-old woman, weary of a pandemic, cold-calls the owner of a peony farm and offers to volunteer as a “writer in residence.”
Last spring, that last one was me. I hoped being there would give me something to write about. I didn’t know what to expect. How would it be to interlope on a working flower farm just over the hill from where Andrew Wyeth painted, a veritable movie location on land protected by the Brandywine Conservancy?
Well, it felt a lot like love.
Years ago, I was a fan girl wearing too much eye makeup when I interviewed the Sharks in the divey back room of a downtown bar. Last spring, I was clean-faced in a sun hat, but still over-researching my subject and talking too much. I took a lot of notes in a fast scrawl. I went on bumpy pickup truck rides to learn more about the farm. I photographed the flowers at every stage of development, from every possible angle, in all weathers, at different times of day. I talked a lot about peonies. The 25-acre Eden had me tripping over my words, up too early and going to bed late. I couldn’t waste a moment because, in just a few weeks, thousands of peonies bloom only briefly and then topple over like boozy debutantes. They return to the earth. I tried not to think of the end of the affair.
Though by May 31, after two downpour days, the peonies had disorganized themselves, listing here, a spillway of petals there. Some early bloomers went, with dignity and little fuss, to fuzzy seed. The rest—Scarlett O’Hara, Sarah Bernhardt, Shirley Temple, Mrs. FDR and the others—remained in flower but slightly scrambled, like ladies at the end of the party, shoes off and their mascara smudged.
Oh, their graceful degradation. They see so little of June. A peony plant’s pointed leaves will stay green all summer, but the ruffled, fluffed, silken blossoms are fast over. One and done. Other flowers bloom all season, making them “Proven Winners” at the garden center and requiring the chore of dead-heading, after which new blooms will simply grow in their place. Not so for diva peonies. They make a single flamboyant show, spiral out their petals, earn their classifications as “doubles” and, even, “bombs.” As the poet, Jane Kenyon, wrote of peonies, “They loll about in gorgeousness; they live for art; they believe in excess. They are not quite decent, to tell the truth. Neighbors and strangers slow their cars to gawk.”
I wasn’t alone in my fascination. In just two weeks, thousands visited Styer’s farm for the Festival of the Peony. They strolled and breathed in the heady fragrance and snapped photos—a simple pleasure just as COVID-19 restrictions began to lift.
This landscape and its brief, floral revelry was too good not to share. I invited all the local writers I knew and sort-of-knew to visit the peony farm one cool, May morning, when it was empty. I hoped they’d find some kind of creative recharge. A few even accepted the peonies of 2021 as a prompt.
Their words, which you can read below, confirmed my hunch about the specialness of the place and the intoxicating beauty of peonies. I was further sure I’d found my people when musicians Thomas Hughes and Gretchen Lohse filmed a video of themselves at Styer’s. They’re deep in a misty field of blooming pink peonies; they’re playing “What a Wonderful World” on autoharps; and a unicorn might or might not have strolled by.
This out-of-the-way farm—maybe every farm?—tumbles together the real and the imagined, fact and fable. When one is excused of doing the real work, farms are always one part Charlotte’s Web. More than once last spring, I lost myself in wide fields of peonies, bumping into bees, surrounded by so much botanical power turning itself on and on and on. I would say it made me happy, but I didn’t register a mood. I can say only that I was deep swimming, carried along by the sweetness and carelessness of flowers.
The glorious fields of peonies packed a powerful statement of endurance, tenacity, abundance and growth. Climbing those hills among peonies parading in rows of color and green flooded me with awe, serenity and hope. Energized by the swell of positive emotion, I suddenly forgot about the work lying in wait on my desk and instead experienced calm content. Those peonies, reaching toward the sun, growing full with luxuriant blossoms and verdant leaves, are flourishing. The same fields in mid-August will portray a less vibrant version of themselves: leaves a dull green, blue sky peeking out between shriveling stems, alive but languishing. By late autumn they will have withered, turned brown, gone to seed, perhaps devoid of life. But the promise of next summer sustains them with hope of a repeat performance. We humans, too, can either flourish or languish, but unlike peonies, we can choose behaviors that will sustain us.
~by Gina Wilson, the author of Skills That Build: The Hard Science of Soft Skills for Work and Life (Summer
A Winter Spent Dreaming
Rounding the corner where May meets June
Nearly teenagers, heads bobbing in the breeze
Aloof and untended, for now
Let the Daffodil have its day
The Forsythia turn bright yellow to green
Cherry blooms lost in the wind
And tired scarlet Tulip towers toppled
The glory now turns to the firework of spring
Reaching for the deep blue sky
A sun sparkled heaven above
The Peony meets the moment
Greets the traveler
on the slick garden path
Only the Freedom Tree sees through the ruse
Its orange visitors hopping branch to branch
While far below, the fragrant scent of the cotton white
Soothes the mighty Sycamore and the chorus of peeps
Nestled in the dream that winter has born
~by poet Alexander Milne, who grows peonies not far from Styers, at his home in northern Delaware
I watch you search for fairy doors in old oak trees.
At Styers’ farm, run past rows of peonies.
Find shiny glass pebbles among the neighbor’s flower beds;
Place a dandelion wreath upon another child’s head.
You pick purple crocuses on the hill at Winterthur,
with Elsa and Anna by your side.
Skip rocks on “Life is but a dream …”
Drop nylon wings to run and hide.
If only we could linger here a little longer—
capture time, like ladybugs you held today.
But you belong to tomorrow,
and these are only stops along the way.
~by Nicole Gabor, author of several children’s books and the forthcoming young adult novel, Catwalk
What is it about the peony? It is the unfolding, the way they begin as hard balls with no secrets to tell and then drink and drink, becoming enormous bursts of layered vulnerability.
~by Emma Copley Eisenberg, writer of fiction and nonfiction and author of the Third Rainbow Girl, also co-director of Blue Stoop, a hub for the literary arts in Philadelphia.
photo credits: Debra Moffitt
*This essay originally appeared in the Farmer-ish print annual.