Peonies

The fog is heavy in Massachusetts, just heavy enough for ghosts to wander through; just heavy enough to mistake one thing for another; weather for widow’s peaks; a cold spring. Despite this haunting, a weekend in southern Massachusetts provides respite and rejuvenation from New York City.

But the yards are still rife with dogs, real and fake; with flowers, full, and falling. Beds are all mulched up and surrounded by green, anticipating summer. Late May, Memorial Day. We hear a musket in the distance shooting off shells into the grey: one, two, three, an echoing silence. The azaleas are browning. It’s time for the rhododendrons, and the purple irises, and, very soon, the peonies. In days, the tight fists of peonies will open out into full romantic flowers like fringing rococo dresses.

Peonies are hardy perennials. Frosty winters help them strengthen their sturdy stems to hold up heavy flower heads. And even then the petals almost touch the ground from the weight. Due to their beautiful flower and their low maintenance, these shrubs are prevalent throughout temperate regions at around the 35 degree latitude mark in the tropic of Cancer: California to Italy. The peony flowers in early June, teem with ants, their smell pungent on the breeze.

Peonies have been cultivated for over 4000 years, their presence recurring in European paintings as well as throughout China and Japan. The flower was named after the Greek physician Paeon and was originally used as a medical plant. Its roots were cultivated to treat epilepsy and “lunacy” as well as other illnesses such as bladder stones and jaundice.

Shrubs generally pair off one property from another. Peonies are often the shrubs used to separate the yard from the sidewalk, one house from another in a suburb. The flower heads hanging like drunken soldiers, sometimes requiring stakes to hold them up.

There’s something violent here. We walk from one house to another witnessing the flowers in their moment of transition. Early spring has passed and early summer is approaching, but there is a giant that hovers here in the mist. What is a garden for? Look how the peonies are used as a sign of division, protecting the house and all the other flowers in a flamboyant wreath. Their once medicinal use is worn down to physical presence and beauty under which a small threat is written.

“Don’t come here.” “Noli te tangere this yard.” The sentiment is so colonial that it bares to mention how plants themselves have traveled from one country or another, on the backs of colonists, and in turn, worked to kill off much of the native species just like their human counterparts. Gardens often held foreign flowers and plants, working more like a plant zoo than a living, working environment.

And with flowers in the garden we fetishize their process, watching them unfold like legs of women. A man once told me he saw all women as flowers: each one beautiful and different surrounding him. On the surface the sentiment was kind.

A week later I walked through Jackson Heights, blocks from the seven train where the streets looked like Long Island streets and the stores like family shops. If there was a suburb in the city, Jackson Heights is lively and comfortable, I heard several languages on my way, and only about two families were English speaking. The gardens there were well cared for, sprinklers were on high, but there were no perfect beds. There were loose greens and weeds mixed with flowers. In the early June the entire place had erupted in color. On a lotus flower bed I was informed that Jackson Heights was famous for its communal gardens.

Community gardens led to a loose and liberal garden that catered to the needs of a place. If gardens are used by groups of people they are working environments, meeting places, farm stands and pharmacies: true respite.

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