Peonies have always struck me as a little too showy. They're like the Lady Gagas of the flower world, with too much makeup and cleavage to be taken seriously. But there's something about peonies before they bloom. As buds they're more like bonbons with creamy centers, all the more appealing for the unknown flavors they are hiding.
Perhaps it was something like this appeal that drew my older brother and cousin to our grandmother's peony bushes. One May afternoon in the early 1970s, when they were visiting our grandmother's house, they took a baseball bat to the hard blooms of her peonies. Whacking each one off its stem like a T-ball from its post, they systematically batted their way through her bushes until most of the blossoms were gone.
Their peony-smacking managed to do what few of us grandchildren had accomplished: make our sweet-natured Mennonite grandmother angry. I have a hard time picturing her standing with her hands on her hips, chiding them, since I never saw her get anywhere close to mad. But now, with three sons of my own, I have no trouble at all imagining the glee of her grandsons. Who knew that flowers could fly?
My brother doesn't remember exactly what our grandmother did, but I imagine that she told them to stop whacking the peonies – now – and to go play something else. They probably found a real baseball to use, even as they held onto the exquisite memory of having actually walloped peony blooms toward the sun.
I like to imagine my grandmother walking back inside her house, probably to make some meadow tea for the offenders. I'm pretty sure she was still angry about her slashed bushes. But I wonder whether she smiled as she stirred the tea, remembering the strange delight that had spread through her as she watched her grandsons watch those flower balls fly.
For years I had told my own sons that the fists of peony blossoms unclench in the spring only with the help of ants. Without ants to scurry over them and lick up the sticky nectar at the edges of the petals, I'd tell them, peonies would simply droop and die.
Ants "kissing open" peony buds is a common story, and an appealing one. Symbiotic mutualism is one of the loveliest things about the natural world. Symbiosis: literally, "together life." A boxer crab clutches a sea anemone to ward off predators with its stinging tentacles, and the anemone eats scraps of food left over from the crab's feeding.
Peonies feed ants, and ants help peonies unfurl. It's hard not to admire such mutuality, not to moralize about it to one's children.
Except that it's not true – the one about peonies and ants that is. Ants do like the taste of the sweet resin that coats the edges of the petals, and they do show up en masse to gorge on it. But I found out recently that peonies will open, ant or no ant. So they're not overexposed celebrities after all! Peonies are the adults in the relationship – the Mennonite grandmothers, even: those who provide for others and expect nothing in return.
I don't know whether my brother and cousin knew anything about the ants-and-peonies myth when they smacked their peony baseballs (probably not), or whether they had a hunch that their spring training shouldn't include their grandmother's flowers (probably). I also don't know whether my grandmother knew anything about symbiosis, or if she did, whether she had any inkling that it might include herself and her grandsons.
But I think she knew something about "together life," and the way a host can be both giver and receiver. That day, as she watched her grandsons launch flowers into the spreading sky, I think she understood the vague but thrumming joy that comes from seeing other creatures find exactly what they need.