There are seven big buds on my peony "Sarah Bernhardt". I've just counted them. I've been waiting several whole summers for this. And you do wait a long time for peonies. You can occasionally find yourself feeling like the End Times will approach and the Sun and the Moon and the stars will all go dim before the peonies get themselves going. Here come the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse! Oh well, that's very inconvenient timing, because my "Bowl of Beauty" just decided to open.
While the peonies whiled away years to get their arses in gear, I've chopped back, pulled out, twined up. I've planted a pear tree, admired its blossom and then picked the first pears. I've turfed a lawn, mowed a lawn, reseeded a lawn and watched it grow painfully, a blade at a time. I've grown nasturtiums, and the following year seen them seed themselves. All this in the brief span of geological time it takes a peony to stop sulking.
Yet they arrive in flower. You buy them, perfectly covered in gigantic tea-cup-sized pink frills, balls of fun, and what you don't realise is that nursery owners have actual magical techniques for getting them to bloom and that once taken out of their enchanted pots and planted in your actual garden, peonies will languish, cheesed off about the move, for 72 months or so before they cheer up again. Frankly, mine have had a death wish since I acquired them and it's basically been like a four-year-old having a sulky tantrum till they were about nine.
But worth waiting for? Entirely. Grand bowls of flower, they are the most perfectly summery plant available to humanity. You can immediately start to tell where you're heading with these gals just by looking at the names. Take "Sarah Bernhardt" for a start. If you've read determined Francophile Julian Barnes' latest novel, Levels of Life (where she features as a character), you'll know that the Divine Sarah comes with all sorts of Alphonse Mucha naughtiness to spare. Appropriately, in a flowerbed, you can put Miss Bernhardt right alongside Monsieur Jules. "Monsieur Jules Elie" is a delicious pale-pink showstopper, though the flowers are often so huge that they have a tendency to bend the whole plant over.
And things get ever saucier. "Do Tell" invites confidences; "Angel Cheeks" suggests a more established intimacy. At that rate, the happy couple may never make it to "Bridal Gown".
While you wait for such excitement to evolve, you need to try hard to resist fiddling. Some books say that peonies will never flower if they are planted too "low". Yes, do not bring them low, I find myself saying in a Ralph Richardson voice. The level of the soil in the garden should match exactly the level of the soil in the pot you're planting them out of. Dampness is also not conducive. But apart from that, there seems little else you can do to chivvy them along. Perhaps they need feeding, I thought to myself circa 2011. I fed them. Nothing happened.
Weirdly, as it turns out, although these plants when in flower look like courtesans who must require constant attention, they are actually fairly low-maintenance. Peep into neglected gardens (one of my more niche interests) to see what's still flourishing despite the general neglect, and a deep-red peony will often be among the post-apocalyptic survivors camping out in the unkempt, unmown grass. Somehow, once installed, these troupers can still manage to put on a show.
As for Sarah and Jules, if they ever do make it to the church, I've got only one suggestion for the destination they must surely choose to ensure they have a perfect honeymoon: "Gay Paree".
In for a peony: four of the best
'Bowl of Beauty'
Peachy. Completely and totally. Perfectly arranged petals around some Crazy Horse showgirl feathers in the centre. £9.99
Very very double, like layers and layers of can-can petticoat skirts, and knicker-pink in colour, to boot. £9.99
A deep rose-red, with all the glamour of an American heiress just off the boat in Paris. £11.99
'Duchesse de Nemours'
Bridal white, with a cool French glamour that's difficult to resist. £9.99. All these peonies are on sale at crocus.co.uk for a limited period