Peonies to go: Hold the ants!

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Early in the morning yesterday as we entered a garden, we walked into a veritable cloud of peony fragrance. It's a scent that can gentle even the toughest day. 

When we cut flowers, we tell both tag-along insects and fungus to bud out

Ah, antlessness!

Why clipping is healthy for peonies

Extending the life of cut flower bouquets

How to select a great future as you cut flowers


One of the reasons I first started to garden

was to enjoy a big vase of peonies on my table. I love how they smell, and seeing a peony bouquet reminds me of my grandmother's house. But every time I cut them and bring them in I can't admire the flowers for squashing the ants that crawl out of them. Funny, I don't remember Granny dealing with ants! I know the ants have to be there to make the peonies bloom but how can I evict them before I bring in the flowers? - C.C. -


We cut peonies in bud to avoid ant problems. Ants may be there but they're easy to see and knock off a bud.

PeonIrisBudsN5330s.jpg PeonyBudAntsN5330s.jpg

In an open bloom the petals may hide a crowd of ants that creep out for days.PeonyRosWhi6493s.jpg


Ants are not essential to peony bloom. The insects are often there to gather the sweet sap that dots the seams of the flower bud covers (below). The flowers open, ants or no ants.







  For this bouquet 
  (below) we cut three peony buds in three stages of
  development. The largest opened two days later, the
  others after four and five days in the vase. We
  changed the water every day to enjoy the show and
  the scent for over a week. (The 1st iris flower lasted
  two days, its side bud opened to take its place on the
  third day, and the whole stem was done before the
  week was out.)  PeonyInVaseN5477s.jpg



Harvest cut flowers to stay ahead of peony fungus trouble.

If you see peony buds that aren't going to open or when there are fading flowers, clip them and throw them on a hot compost. The less dead tissue there is on the plant, the fewer the places where botrytis can get a toehold. Fungus spores from dead buds and decaying petals infect weak spots on leaves throughout summer. The infections end up streaking down the stems to erode the crown.


More about this in What's Coming Up 51...

and What's Coming Up 151, page 15.

The cut peonies we've shown on this page came from this plant (below), which had been moved just weeks before. Although most of its stems continued growing normally after the move, those on one side of the plant must have become dry from root loss. Their flower buds died.

PeonyAftrMovN5324s.jpg PeonyBudsDeadN5325s.jpg


Developing flower buds can be killed by cold, drought or physical damage. Fungi such as peony botrytis that are too weak to infect live tissue can move into dead buds and dying flower petals. Once there, they produce spores that can drift into other damaged tissues, such as foliage scarred by hail or slug scraped stems.

Trapped moisture and dying petals make a perfect breeding place for fungi. The more petals in a peony, the more reason to deadhead it to keep it healthy. A "bomb" type flower full of petals may end its season as mush hanging from the stem, while a single flowered peony might simply drop its petals and offer little purchase for fungi.

PeonyPnkBomb4547s.jpg  PeonySnglWhi1486s.jpg


Longevity for cut flowers

Freshly cut, young flowers can last at least a week in a vase. To enjoy them for that long, or longer:

  • Change the water daily. If you miss a day, rub and rinse the stems under running water and wash the vase well at the next change, to remove any algae. Once algae or fungi begin to proliferate in a vase they will clog the stems' water conducting system and the flowers will wilt.
  • Put cut flowers into the refrigerator, vase and all, when you aren't home.
  • Keep cut flowers away from bowls of fresh fruit, especially apples or bananas. Strawberries are also special trouble. Ripening fruit emits ethylene gas, which hastens seed formation and can cause flowers to fade sooner than otherwise.
  • Keep flowers in a bright room but away from strong light that comes from just one side if the bouquet includes spike-form flowers such as lupine (below), foxglove or snapdragons. In even light, spikes' growing tips will remain straight. In the presence of one-sided light they will grow toward the strongest light so straight tips will become curved or twisted.



While we're at it: Cull for the best self sowers

You're selecting your future crops whenever you clip cut flowers

and deadhead the annuals and biennials that sow about in a garden.