By Dorothy Dobbie
When I first started gardening in earnest after leaving politics, one of my early purchases was a tree peony. I bought it from a small garden centre on Roblin Boulevard that was run by a family of good Tories. Many people will remember RBM gardens; it was definitely a down-home operation, with the flowers growing in old turkey sheds and only a big poster on a wooden wall to tell you what was what. Belle McGuckin was the owner’s attractive daughter. She had long silky, light brown hair, a slender figure and very winning Irish ways. She worked hard in the greenhouse operation all summer long. Belle and her family had been stalwart political supporters, so RBM was my first garden supplier.
I used to wander in awed delight among the flats of bedding plants happily growing on gravel beds beside a weed or two for company. All would be serenaded by a host of honeybees busily reaping this unexpected harvest of exotic pollen.
A treat for passersby
The tree peony was a big plant in a 10-inch black pot. It carried a price tag of $14.95, at the time, an astronomical price for a flower. But I had to have it after I saw its silky red blooms and bright yellow stamens on the poster. I dreamed of how it would shine in the garden and how it would stop passersby with its beauty.
Belle didn’t have much advice to give me about its care or where to plant it – she wasn’t really much of a gardener, she told me, but she did hunt up a pamphlet to go with my purchase and the deal was struck.
I read that pamphlet very carefully. I learned that this wonderful plant was from China, where it would grow to about six feet tall and wide. “Plant in a north facing location in front of some evergreens,” said the text, so I did just that, figuring there must be some magic connection. I now understand that such a location keeps the plant well snow covered and out of the sun where it could be damaged by the thaw and freeze cycle. We dug a deep and wide hole (my husband, Glenn, loved to dig deep) and filled the hole with fresh soil and peat moss. Then we tenderly laid in the root ball, watered and waited.
Then came the miracle!
Nothing happened that year. Nor the next. Nor the next. Worse, the paper boy took a short cut that included tramping down the plant every winter. In the spring, some woody twigs would be left and gradually fresh sprouts of pea green would appear. The leaves were attractive, almost maple shaped, and although the plant never got bigger than about three feet by three feet, it had a nice shape, so we left it alone and forgot about it.
Then, one spring, the miracle happened. It bloomed! And it bloomed! It was covered in huge silky red blooms with stunning, eye-popping yellow centres. Glenn and I were completely smitten.
That fall, he built a fence around the tree peony and I covered its root crown with peat moss. Then we waited. And we waited. Nothing the next spring.
We have learned over the years that our tree peony blooms when it wants to, sometimes three years in a row, sometimes not at all. We haven’t seen a flower for the last two years. We certainly did not expect to see one this year after the cold fall with no snow cover and the late frost after an early thaw this spring. But then one day, there it was: a single bud, fat and pointed and full of promise.
A glorious sight
Now it’s raining cats and dogs. The herbaceous peonies are groaning under the weight of the water in their just-opening petals and some are leaning closer and closer to the earth in spite of Glenn’s wonderful efforts to give them support with sturdy stakes and gentle windings of twine. There’s a garden tour for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra next Saturday and the single bud is half open. I am tempted to go outside and cover it with an umbrella until the rain stops. It’s only a few more days till I can share this glory with all my visitors.
Now the weekend has passed. The tour is still several days away. The tree peony opened fully in spite of the rain and is now blooming in all its glory, although it is likely that this will only be a memory by Saturday. But it’s single blossom does shine in the garden. And passersby can only stop and stare.