Ah! that smell. Fresh and green – a little like a rose, a little like broccoli. Not to everyone’s liking, I understand, but nothing will transport you faster to your Grandmother’s backyard faster than a face plant in a big fluffy peony pillow and a big long whiff.
It is fitting that Memorial Day is the traditional start of peony season. Everyone’s Grandma grew peonies it seems, so it’s not surprising that our olfactory senses team up with the neighboring hippocamthus to bind that peony smell with memories of childhood and all the other happy May events: prom, graduations, weddings, the unbearably close last day of school. I hold on tight to memories of my Grandma Frances, whose peonies I dug out of her Ohio backyard and took home with me after she went off to that Great Garden in the Sky.
Wet bare feet covered in grass clippings and huffing away at a big white Festiva Maxima peony – I am no longer here in Maryland but back on rain soaked cement steps, leaning against the back screen door with a parfait glass of of strawberry jello and cool whip, listening to the sound of dinner dishes being washed and Grandma singing to the LP sound track of My Fair Lady.
Later she would come out and join me with her own parfait glass and we would watch the ants crawl over her peonies buds. “But I want to be a Lay-dee in a Flaaaa-oaaar shop…” Grandma would bray in her best Eliza Doolittle. Not every flower can boast such time traveling magic.
And not all memories are fond, sadly, and back here, IRL, some local flowers growers may have more sulfur than sweet-scented memories of the 2016 Spring that Wasn’t. Some will have to pen an En Memoriam to entire peony fields that did not make it through this particularly cruel April. Bob Wollam of Wollam Gardens in Jeffersonton VA, calls it “the most challenging spring” in his 25 years of experience as a grower. After an April 7th freeze, growers in North Carolina and Virginia watched in dismay as their just ripening plants froze in bud. Later flowering specimens who survived that cold snap came down with Botrytis fungal disease after 15 consecutive days of cold rain. Some growers reported losing 90% of their peonies crop. This uncooperative spring will be felt for a while, putting growers several weeks behind in planting summer annuals and being particularly cruel to macro hydrangea, which may also be in shortage this year. And yet the thought of frozen peony buds seems just spiteful.
But the sun has come out and I remain grateful that my back yard blooms made it and that my clever designer friends have been busy giving peony its due.
And if this isn’t enough memory preservation for you – here then is my recipe for Peony Simple Syrup. This morning’s batch is going into Kombucha. The next batch will take a swim with some gin in a martini piscine.
three or four locally grown, organic peony blooms, preferably a fragrant variety like Festiva Maxima or Dr. Alexander Fleming
3 cups of water
3 cup of sugar (more if you want to make a thicker syrup for desserts)
juice of 1/2 a lemon
Set a kettle on to boil as you gently pull the petals off the stem, leaving aside green leaves and any pollen stamens, and place in a bowl. Pour the boiling water over the petals. And here – I just have to just say – sorry about the smell. It will look like sad wet toilet paper and smell like broccoli but stay with me here! You’ll be glad you did. Cover the water and petals with a dish or a towel and let sit out overnight.
The next day, pour off the water, squeezing water from the petals, then measure the water. Discard the petals. Add the yellow peony water to a pan along with the exact same amount of sugar as water (more if you intend to use this in desserts and need something thicker), bring to a boil and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Let cool.
Once cool, add the lemon juice and watch the pink peony magic happen!
Pour into a pretty bottle (extra points if it’s a bottle you inherited from Grandma) and enjoy! Add to seltzer water or splash into your favorite cocktails or kombucha recipe or save it for whenever you need to resurrect a happy memory. Serve it with Prosecco and call it an Eliza Dolittle. Stored in the fridge, it should last about a month.
Thanks for the memories, Peony!