My 10-year old daughter Louisa and I snipped peonies from our yard last week. After bringing them inside, we came into the kitchen to arrange them in a vase full of water– the vase that I almost dropped when Louisa loudly shrieked,
“It’s got AAAAAAAAANNNNNNNTS!”
“Well, of course it’s got ants,” I said, “Let me tell you a story…”
There is this beautiful relationship between ants and peonies. It is often deemed an Old Wives’ Tale, a legend, an untruth. But I like the sentiment behind the story so much that I have chosen to believe it to be true. The story is that when the bulbs of peonies are small and tightly folded, ants flock to the bushes to choose a peony bloom to help it along its Journey to Bloomdom. The constant activity of the tiny ant legs crawling all over the edges of those tightly closed petals help to push the petals open, so that the bud can blossom into a beautifully plush pink peony. Like this particular one, featuring the ant over which Louisa shrieked:
But if there were no tiny ant legs crawling all over the surface of the peony bud, it would remain tightly wound, unopened forever, just to die on the stem. Like this.
There is a childhood memory burned into my senses. It’s a memory of the transplanted peony bush right outside the edge of our patio. But it’s the ants on that peony that I remember the most. I recall having reactions much like Louisa’s– always trying to swat them off, but my sister asking me to
refrain from such barbaric activity please be gentle and don’t do that. That peony bush was a legend in itself, for it was transplanted from my mother’s grandfather’s home in Big Rock, TN, where my mother spent part of her childhood. Mom was very protective of that peony bush… Papa’s Peony. I remember its exact location beneath the black eve lamp, its sweet scent, and its ants. That peony hasn’t bloomed in years, and those ants are long gone, but my memories of it are still alive.
<Insert endearing photo of me beside Papa’s Peony, covered in ants. Not me covered in ants, of course, but the bush.>
<Nevermind. I don’t have a photo like that. Hmph.>
Most folks are completely annoyed by the ants and thus attack them with insecticide. But the peony experts will tell you not to do this, of course. They tell us not to try to get rid of the ants– that it’s a natural and temporary activity. Peonies produce small amounts of nectar, and the ants are just having a little snack. I like one source who said that the peonies are ‘just supplying the food the ants crave, creating the simpatico relationship’. What a great word.. simpatico. The two simply live in harmony and enjoy the benefits one another provides. Isn’t that a great example of how we should live in service to one another?
But when we look at The Ant and The Peony on another level– that the fragrant blooms exist because of the hard work of those tiny little ant feet– then it’s an even greater lesson than one of just having simpatico relationships. The blooms in our Garden of Life just don’t happen by chance or because of our goodness. Sometimes they are brought about not only through hard work, but even through suffering. (I’m not sure how many ants actually die while running themselves ragged all around those peonies, but you get the picture.) It’s much like the caterpillar and butterfly analogy– that the caterpillar has to go through isolation, darkness, transformation, pressure, eventually pushing himself out of his cocoon, building up strength in his wings so he will be able to fly. And that struggle is an essential step along the journey, one that cannot be skipped, or the beauty won’t ever be revealed.