There are two types of peonies: the herbaceous variety, consisting of individual flowers, and the deciduous shrub. Or, as I like to refer to them, the blondes and the brunettes.
The blonde herbaceous ones are, like their two-legged sisters, easy to love—they’re big, blowsy, and abundant, and you just want to pull them to you, bury your nose in their crazy, flyaway petals, and inhale that sweet perfume. If this sounds like damning with faint praise, I swear on every brown hair on my head that it isn’t. Blonde peonies put me in mind of Marilyn Monroe (all right, she wasn’t a real blonde, but she had the soul of one): the flowers exude a fantastic life force—they simply explode before your eyes, and everything they are remains on display at all times. Whether you see a great swath of them in the garden or come upon their adorable heads bobbling in a vase, you understand the Marilyn peonies the moment you look at them, and your heart foods with gratitude and pleasure.
Even so, I’d give a slight edge to the brunette—if the herbaceous variety belongs to Marilyn, the deciduous is Greta Garbo. The beauty of the “tree” peony, as it’s called, is less obvious, more unconventional. You have to unpack layers of mystery to fully appreciate its character; it is fascinating rather than effusive. As with poppies, the petals of a peony can be as delicate and translucent as crepe; the flower’s deep scarlets and magentas manage to be at once boldly saturated and subtly nuanced.
Though it can break your heart to cut them, a single bloom in a vase will reward long contemplation. I adore my roses the most. But no flower more clearly expresses for me the presence of the spiritual in the realm of nature than this one.
Excerpted from Flowers by Carolyne Roehm. Copyright © 2012 by Carolyne Roehm. Excerpted by permission of Potter Style, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.