Intersectional Peonies: A New Direction

Having teenaged daughters has helped me rediscover my feminism.  Writers like Caitlin Moran and Laura Bates have guided me.  A BBC documentary series called No More Boys and Girls was game-changing.  I realised all the myriad ways we hold boys and girls back and stop them reaching their own true potential.  We believe that girls aren’t as physically strong, even though they are.  We teach boys to suppress their feelings and deny them a vocabulary to describe their emotional experiences.  We limit girls’ ambitions by putting them in clothes that prevent them from climbing trees, and plaster them in slogans that suggest their life’s ambition should be to be a princess.

I have had a book on my reading list for a while called Why I am no longer talking to white people about race.  It is about the insidious racism that is very much alive and well in our society, but that we often deny.

I, as a white person, cannot possibly appreciate the ways in which subtle messages about race permeate a black person’s life.  I don’t know how irritating it is to have people wanting to touch your hair, or telling you black people have a good sense of rhythm.  I don’t know what it feels like to be invisible in many areas of the media, higher education, the Royal Family and politics.

If a white person discusses race with a black person, the black person (and forgive the pun) has more skin in the game.  It matters more, because it hurts more.

Similarly, if a woman discusses sexual harassment with a man, she is more likely to get angry and emotional, because it hurts more.

It hurts when people deny that we have a problem with sexism or racism, or the way we view disability or sexuality or age or left-handedness.  If we are not in the minority, we probably have a limited awareness of the subtle forms of discrimination.

So the solution, I think, is to listen.  And read Girl Up and Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race.

Why did I go on a feminism and racism tangent?  Because a lot of stories in the media have wound me up in the last week.  We have a long way to go.  We need change, and we need to listen.

And I have been thinking about intersectional feminism and intersectional peonies.  Intersection being a crossroads, a meeting place, a way of taking a new direction.

There are 3 types of peony.

Herbaceous Peonies

These are shrub-like in stature, a metre or so high and wide, but die back completely in the winter. Herbaceous peonies produce great blowsy blooms, like 1950s starlets, with layers of soft chiffon or silken ruffled petals. They are associated with an old fashioned sort of femininity, evocative of powder puffs and full petticoats.  Their bosomy plumpness can require some trussing and support.

Tree Peonies

As the name would suggest, these are taller, and retain a stem in winter.  Their foliage is even more exotic than their herbaceous cousins, like someone has folded up each leaf, gone a little bit crazy with the scissors, then shaken them out with a flourish, to reveal their shaggy fans. The flowers of tree peonies have a lighter, more zingy and tropical feel, with a wider colour range. If herbaceous peonies are housewives in chiffon nighties, then tree peonies are power-dressing sisters doing it for themselves.  No support is needed.

Intersectional Peonies

Intersectional peonies, also known as Itoh peonies, are a cross between the two. They are bushy like a shrub, but have the laser-cut foliage and startling flowers of tree peonies. They come in bright and light shades, often with a deeply contrasting corona around the centre of the bloom. These peonies also support themselves.  They can be anything they want to be.  They are gender-neutral.

So this is why I am exploring the world of intersectional peonies.

‘Garden Treasure’ is my first yellow peony.  It has soft yellow petals, golden yellow stamens, with a corona of marmalade orange and fresh green carpels. The green carpels really make this one. There is something prehistoric and savage about their ripe succulence. I planted this late, in February, and it doesn’t have any flowerbuds on this year, so I will have to be patient.

Callie’s Memory is a lovely soft apricot, with wine-coloured staining at the base of each petal, along with a picotee edge to the petals.  There are the golden stamens and green carpels at the centre.  I have one flower on my new plant, and it is looking a little skinny and angular at present.  I wonder if it will fill out and get more confident with age?

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‘Cora Louise’ has white petals with magenta staining at the centre.  I have a few small flowerbuds on this, but I am going to have to be patient.

Not so with ‘Watermelon Wine’.  I chose this peony on a whim, because my daughter is obsessed by watermelon (the taste, the texture, the colour, the scent). I love to have plants I associate with particular people.

In early spring, the foliage looked so tender and raw:

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The fans of foliage unfurled.  They were stunning when caught in the morning sun.

Paeonia 'Callie's Memory' foliage

Where herbaceous peonies have round, drumstick buds, intersectional peonies have buds that are pointed and arranged in a meringue-swirl.

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The sepals parted, like a secret-service gadget, to reveal a flash of silk.  Notice too the intricate veining of the leaves, and the darker pigmentation around the edges.

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And then the flower broke free.  I was standing by it when one the petals gave a little defiant flick, and opened wider.

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Intersectional peonies tend to have a couple of layers of petals (doubles) rather than the many layers of herbaceous peonies.  This makes the flowers lighter and freer.  Because they have fewer petals, you can see the carpels and stamens more easily.  This one reminded me of prawns and noodles in a bowl.  But wait…no…are they slices of watermelon?

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These are the structures closer up.  The green carpels at the centre are the female part, with a sticky landing pad, the stigma, and the waiting ovaries beneath.  The golden stamens are around the edge.  These are the male part, providing pollen.  The pollen is transferred by insects from the stamens to the stigma.  To create a new hybrid, you can dust the pollen from one peony onto the stigma of a different peony.

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At the moment, the blooms are at the raspberry end of watermelon.  The petals will fade a little towards the edges.  I will post more pictures as they change.

This is a highly-scented peony.  My Super-Taster (and therefore Super-Sniffer) daughter identified cloves, with a hint of other spices like cumin and turmeric.  It is definitely a pleasant smell.

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Like herbaceous peonies, once the flowers are over, the foliage will provide a handsome backdrop for other plants through the summer.  I must say, the foliage has blown me away with its beauty.  It is even more intricate and delicate than that of the herbaceous peony.

The only maintenance needed is for the foliage to be removed in autumn, and perhaps a mulch layer, kept away from the growing crown.

Intersectional peonies are the future.  I will be actively encouraging them into the garden, and then they will show me the way to go.  There are new possibilities.  We can go on a journey together.

Have you grown tree peonies or intersectional peonies?  Which ones would you recommend?

If you are interested in growing peonies, see my previous posts, What a Whopper! and Full of Charm.

37 Comments Add yours

  1. fredgardener says:

    Wonderful pictures Ali…It was one of my ideas to show progress.
    My peonies are late and I just have leaves right now. You did the job!

    1. Ali says:

      Mine have been much later this year, Fred, I think by about 2 weeks, looking at photos from last year. There are still lots in bud.

  2. pommepal says:

    Oh my word Ali, I just thought a peony was a peony. Never really thought about them as again it is something I cannot grow over here. You are opening my eyes. And I hear you about feminism and racism, I don’t think we, in the majority, can ever really feel how it would be, in so many subtle ways, to always be reminded of colour and sex.

    1. bcparkison says:

      Not to worry…No one is going to let us forget.

  3. Beautiful photos, but I would just like to say, as a child, I was dressed in dungerees (floral of course) because I liked to climb trees! I had frilly dresses as well but I had a mum who was practical. I watched comedians such as Larry Grayson, Kenny Everet, I never gave a thought to them being ‘gay’, they were just comedians. Touching someone’s hair out of curiosity is not confined to any race, I’ve often touched someone’s hair or beard. There are differences in race, sexuality and gender, we have to accept that but it doesn’t need to mean we have to lose ours to accommodate everyone else’s.

  4. I have to stop reading your blog now. The wish list is becoming too long as every time I read your blog another fabulous plant is coveted; now watermelon wine is added. Maybe it is societal conditioning but my friends and I were obsessed with everything watermelon as teens especially lipgloss.

    1. Ali says:

      You are right, fruity things are for girls! It is weird how it permeates everything!!

      1. I think it is a strong marketing team at the lipbalm company

  5. Tish Farrell says:

    Agree entirely on the racism and sexism. But you have quite opened my eyes with intersectional peonies. Clearly I need to magic my garden larger 🙂

  6. I always learn so much when I visit! Didn’t realize about intersectional peonies. Gorgeous photos!

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you, Lisa. X

  7. Jean C says:

    We do need change, just as we learn about plants in our gardens and the change that goes on there, I hope that people can learn and change so that women and men can feel safe in this world. I love to find out what other gardeners are discovering in the plant world. Now I know a little bit about intersectional peonies – what a wonderful pursuit!

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you Jean, I love the company I keep in the blogging world. X

  8. A. JoAnn says:

    Beautiful, in every way! I am sharing this post. Thank you so much for the effort and thoughtfulness you captured so well.

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you for sharing, JoAnn. 😘

  9. janesmudgeegarden says:

    Casual racism: so subtle people aren’t even aware it’s happening. As to peonies, I also didn’t know there are several different kinds, although I did once try to grow a tree peony. The woman I purchased it from assured me she’d seen it growing in Mongolia and that it would survive in my previous garden. It didn’t, of course.

    1. Ali says:

      That’s a shame. Is it the cold or the heat that is challenging? They need a certain number of hours of cold in order to flower, I think. I’m guessing the flowers may suffer in the heat? They like good drainage too.

      1. janesmudgeegarden says:

        I don’t know, Ali. It may have been too hot as there was certainly enough cold in the winter. Btw, I meant that the person who is being racist often isn’t aware they’re doing it. I didn’t phrase that very well.

      2. Ali says:

        I got that, Jane, totally. I used to have dealings with a person who would refer to any person of colour as ‘my little Indian friend’ or ‘my little Chinese friend’. They wouldn’t have dreamed of saying ‘my little English friend’. It is subtle, but it matters. Thank you – your comments are always so thoughtful. X

  10. bcparkison says:

    Your Beautiful photo’s tell the story.

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you. X

  11. I’m obviously going to need a larger garden! I had no idea there was such a thing as intersectional peonies! Very cool.
    As to racism and sexism. In my little town, if you are black and you drive through town, count on getting pulled over. I once was talking with some boys from Chicago who were selling candy and a white cop came flying into my store, yelling at me not to encourage them! I was frightened, and I’m white! As I’ve gotten older I’ve discovered that ageism is a thing, too. Sometimes you see a glint in an impatient youth’s eye and you realize they’d just as soon see you gone. it is chilling.

    1. Ali says:

      That is very sobering, Melissa. Thank you for sharing. There are many gradations and types of discrimination. I suppose one strategy is to talk about it openly, and not hide from it. There is obvious hateful bigotry, and then the less obvious assumptions. For the latter, one strategy is to express surprise when it happens. That’s a good way to stand up for the victim in a crowd.

      1. Yes I think you are right. I’m so glad you have opened the topic on your blog. You are courageous.

      2. Ali says:

        The book I’m reading is so eye-opening, I can’t hold it in.

      3. It’s good to come across a book like that, isn’t it?

      4. Ali says:

        It is. I’m recommending it to everyone.

  12. Oh my! I’m supposed to be taking a break from blogging but this post pulled me in….peonies (sigh) are my favourite as you know and these are just stunning. I feel a shopping spree coming on….
    I’ve written a few posts about education -my job -and gender issues. The way we treat our children is so important and should not be different dependant on gender. This is particularly true for dads who I regularly watch treating their little girls with much more of a gentler approach to their sons. Listening and hearing are very different I think so I’m not sure these issues will ever go unfortunately. All we can do is teach our children to be kind and to respect their fellow peers but having done this for 20 years, I realise that children are not the problem…..lovely post. Xx

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you Sophie. x

  13. Eliza Waters says:

    I’ve long-admired tree and Itoh peonies, but have been put off by the cost. I would love one of those crinkled-paper, yellow ones!

    1. Ali says:

      The cost was prohibitive for me too for a long time, Eliza. These were Christmas presents! The herbaceous peonies are brilliant value in comparison.

      1. Eliza Waters says:

        Great gift! 🙂

  14. John Kingdon says:

    Ah, peonies. Or is it paeonies? Or paeonia? I’m going to go back right to the beginning. These days, it’s so difficult to have a conversation with so many people. My opening gambit is often “If I offend, it’s unintentional and I’m sorry. I’ll be even more sorry if you don’t come right back at me and tell me I’ve offended and why. So I’ll learn.” I’ve made more friendships as a result of that rehearsed statement than in years of ignorance. It’s better than being scared to even open your mouth.

    1. Ali says:

      I think that is a very good strategy, because we do need to have conversations and engage with the topic.

  15. Ali, I love all your posts, but I just love it when you use nature as a type of metaphor for personal and social issues (which I think are really the same thing 🙂 ). This post about using intersectional peonies to talk about gender and race is brilliant. I love it. Thank you.

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you Shelly. I do find it interesting how there is often a link between what is going on in my head and what I find in the garden. I suppose what we see is very much influenced by our internal state.

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