Marianne Van Osch (Patrick Davies, 100 Mile Free Press photo)

Festiva Maxima survives, thrives in heat wave

Marianne Van Osch column

In September of 2015, I was given three peony plants. I planted them in a sheltered, sunny spot and there they sat for years, small and insignificant, producing tiny buds and half-hearted blooms. Then last spring it was as if they suddenly woke up and decided that it was time they each did something about the COVID-19 gloom.

During the month of June, one of the peonies grew until it was a meter high. Its leaves were a healthy dark green and buds appeared. Soon, despite the lack of sun, very low temperatures, and daily wind-whipped rain, the blooms opened into a rich, deep red. They were about fourteen centimetres across and delicately scented.

The second peony did the best he could, putting up spindly stems, a few raggedy leaves and despite his efforts, no buds. I told him, as I do all of my flowers, that’s okay but it’s up to you to survive. Well, who knows what secret he may share with us someday.

The third peony is at the edge of the flower garden at the front of our house. Last June it was beaten down by blasts of cold wind and rain that swept around the corner. But it began to grow, long after the red peony had faded and the flowerless one had drooped. This late peony was odd from the first, with crooked, thin beige stems shaded in a light burgundy colour. Up they went, with little promise in their fragility. Buds appeared. About 40 of them, like hard little Tootsie pops on sticks.

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Then, when I wasn’t paying attention, the leaves changed and became wide and strong and dark green. The ants went to work. The flower heads opened. They were huge with ruffled edges, pure white with a splash of crimson in the middle that looked as if it had been flicked from a paintbrush.

As if the blooms were not perfect enough, they had the strongest, most enchanting fragrance of any flower I’ve ever known. Just a few of them filled the house with perfume for a week. I took bouquets to several friends who had been staying close to home.

One morning I had an appointment with the dentist. I thought that a nice bouquet of the unusual white peonies would brighten his office. So I cut a few, wrapped the stems in a wet paper towel and foil, and went to town.

I was sitting in the office, duly masked and at a proper distance from other patients, clutching my peonies, when Karla the receptionist looked up at me from her desk. She jumped up and declared, “You’ve got a Festiva Maxima!”

“Oh no! What dreadful dental dilemma had she seen on my chart!” I fell into a pit of fear.

She zipped around the counter, straight for my peonies. She picked them up carefully and held them at an angle so her small but eager audience could see the crimson centres. She told us that Peonia Festiva Maxima is a classic peony, one that was developed over 150 years ago. Apparently, they are not often seen in this part of the province. That was interesting, but what was really amazing was that someone in a town as small as 100 Mile House would be an expert on peonies!

The dentist joined the enthusiastic group of Festiva Maxima admirers. He found a vase, put the flowers in it and placed it on the counter. He looked at it thoughtfully, then tied a blue ribbon neatly around the vase. The room was filled with smiles and the Festiva Maxima blooms joined in the moment with their sweetness.

This year, June was the month of peonies in our area. The Festiva Maxima and peonies in so many yards survived the heat wave that stunted other plants. In fact, they seemed to thrive whereas taller, hardy standards such as red monarda, maltese cross, painted daisies, and lilies, are all half their normal height. Even the tough turtle heads are brown and shrivelled.

And that’s the beauty of flower gardens. At times they can disappoint us. At other times they provide us with anticipation and a delight that enriches our lives.

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