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All time and forever flower of June

Great colour, enchanting fragrance and beautiful form make Sarah Berhardt a garden standout. Judith McClure photo

Whenever peony heads get together there is invariably someone who asks about their personal favourite. Taking a leaf from Will Rogers book I will have to confess that “I have never met a peony I didn’t like.”  But if I could only choose one to have in my garden it would undoubtably be the venerable and gorgeous Sarah Bernhardt.

Responsibility for this pot de fleurs rest squarely with my kindly grandmother who would cut a small armful of these wonderful classics from her back garden and arrange them in a white porcelain vase on the table facing the lake each June.  And for days afterwards her home would be filled with the enticing fragrance of alluring peonies.

Even today decades later I still maneuver my ample nose close to these delicious  beauties when they finally make an appearance (usually after all the other peonies have bloomed) and somehow an important rite of spring is complete once again.

It was not surprising therefore when 18 years ago this spring we bought six peony roots from Ron Binch in Bloomfield and started the western fringe of what was to become our garden.  Half of these roots were for the pristine Festiva Maxima and the remainder were the great lady Sarah herself.

Introduced in 1906 along with a cornucopia of other ravishing peonies by  French horticulturalist Victor Lemoine and son Emile,  Sarah shows the classic qualities of the lactiflora peonies — heavenly scent and free flowering posture.

Named after the famous French thespian once described as “the most famous actress the world has ever known”,  this peony has survived poor soil, indifferent  horticultural practices, and it has actually thrived in Canada despite being pummeled by harsh, biting cold.

What makes it such a gem?   It is the large, tightly packed, blush pink petals fading to creamy white held on erect stems and what I would describe as forest green foliage.  The flowers are gloriously double.

The old girl in all her glory come later in the month but is well worth the wait. Donald McClure photo

Even  when American garden guru Alice Harding in her authoritative The Book of the Peony written in 1917 lists Sarah as one of a “group of rare and exquisite peonies”  along with classics like Madame Jules Deserrt, Primevere and  Thereseˆ — all of which bloom in our garden today–but are not as closely coveted as the great lady herself

Peonies by their nature are a lot like another classic actress — Swedish prima donna  Greta Garbo “ who vanted to be alone”.  Peonies  by nature love to be left alone,  will tolerate a sprinkle of bone meal each year, and can be fussed with a bit when the season ends. That is all of the star treatment they will require. Oh yes, they don’t like to be buried too deeply.

Even though hundreds of enticing new varieties have evolved over the last century still  Sarah was was selected as the 2004 Cut Flower of the Year by the Assoc. of Specialty Cut Flower Growers in the US.

Oh yes what is the largest number of buds I have discovered on a single plant?  About seven years ago one sported over 290 buds.  Not bad for an old gal.

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About the Author: He can tickle your funny bone or tug at your heart strings. County people may know him as a chronicler of everything that happens (or should happen) in the garden, but his interests stretch across the natural world. His unique sense of observation takes in a wide expanse of living and may even point out some truths about our own condition as managers of the world around us. With Loyalist antecedents in his family tree his roots go deep into the Ontario countryside.

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  1. kelly says:

    Excellent article! How do you preserve their gorgeous blooms during a heavy rain? Mine were all destroyed after 2 days this year?

  2. Jan Roblin says:

    Delightful account of reasons to include this grand lady in your garden: beauty, survival, scent, dramatic presence.

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