Sunday, August 14, 2005

A Gardener's Obsession

by Blaine Marchand
Taken from The Peony C to C August 2005 Vol 8 Issue 3

My parents didn't garden.  My childhood home was filled with shrubs whose blooms were lovely but fleeting.  Our side yard was cloistered by long rows of the common lilac that, for a brief period, was a flurry of mauve garlands that weighed down the tips of branches and wove the air with spicy incense.  Two side of the front yard billowed in a cloud of soft pink in early June as what my mother called "June roses" came and were spent.

However, each year in May, the Sisters would prepare our class for the annual procession down the hill of Piccadilly Avenue to the small wooded grove beside their neighbouring convent.  Nestled there was a grotto fashioned as if it were Lourdes in France.  Each morning leading up to the event, time would be devoted to learning the words of the hymns honouring Mary.  Every year, the girls whose names invoked the stories of saints - Catherine, Ann and Margaret - were given the privilege of bringing floral tributes to adorn the shrine.

Against their green tunics, the plumes of dark red, of snow white, of flush rose seemed to be exotic birds nestled into their arms.  As these girls led the chanting lines of boys and girls, quills of petals tumbled onto the ground over which we walked as we made our way down the gray asphalt and into the depth of wooded shade.  Against the dark stones, fashioned to suggest a cave, these peonies were fantastical splashed colour.

It was decades later, when I bought my own home that I first had plants of my own.  Within the grass, along the gnarled wire fence were two clumps - Sarah Berhardt and Festiva Maxima, I would later learn.  These peonies frustrated me.  Having been planted many years before, the large specimens would be top heavy with buds each year.  Inevitably just as they were to open, a violent night storm would rattle the windows.  In the morning, as I looked out over the yard, the peony blossoms, that last night held such promise, would be strewn across the lawn like shredded tissue paper.  Year after year, I cursed these plants until finally, when a friend said how much he loved peonies, I grabbed a shovel and tore them out of the ground.

Little did I suspect that peonies, like all things beautiful, are persistent.  They do not give way to the whims and rantings of novice gardeners.  They are called perennials for good reason.  And so, the next year, rising to the challenge, the peonies threw out shoots and gradually took back their rightful place.  Their perseverance won me over.  I learned to love their juxtaposition of subtlety and substance.

It was not, however, until my partner and I bought a century-old brick and stone schoolhouse that my obsession with peonies really took hold.  The school was built in the high  period of Victoria's reign,  on the cusp that marked 60 years of her monarchy.  As we slowly turned the neglected yards around the building into gardens, we searched through books for names of plants that were of that era.  And so, into perennial borders went peonies that evoked that period - Edulis Superba, Monsieur Jules Elie, Albert Crousse and Duchesse de Nemour.  Next, the ones we sought out were developed in the early decades of the 1900's.  Occasionally, we would buy a peony, regardless of its name or era, simply because we loved its colour or its foliage.

And then we discovered the peonies of Saunders with their spectaclar apricot, amber, buff and yellow.  His single peonies, I found exceptionally beautiful.  As Saunders was born in Canada and his father was the firs director of the Central Experimental Farm, near the neighbourhood I grew up in Ottawa and a place where I often wandered, they had a special connection for me.

We had begun to collect other plants developed in Canada - roses, apples and daylilies.  So, it was not long before Canadian peonies started to take their place in our garden, those of Brethour, Cousins and Lessing.  One of our prized peonies is a Menard - the Adrienne Clarkson peony, which we received as a bonus a few years back, before it was named to honour our current Governor General.

A good number of the peonies in our collections came from the annual CPA root sale.  And for that I am most thankful.  It is a way of obtaining hard to find peonies and to build the finances of the Society at the same time.  In the upcoming years, as I start into my retirement, I will be able to return the favour and offer roots fro our holdings.  While we now have about 75 different peonies, with three acres of property,  there is still plenty of room for growth.

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