IN THE lawn of the building where I work is a large bed of peonies. It is a gorgeous sight when all the plants are in full bloom. Peonies are among my most-loved flower friends, both for their own beauty and for their association with happy experiences. They are in the pigeonhole next to roses in my memory storehouse. A friend recently told me of the astonishment of a man from another country when he first saw peonies in this land and was amazed at their size and color. I am not amazed at his amazement.
I have watched this bed on the lawn for many years as I have passed by headed for the time clock. I have noticed two things about them: they never fail to bloom at the same time every spring; also there seldom fails to come a beating wind and rainstorm every year that crushes them down into the muddy bed and destroys them. In not many springs in the past twenty or thirty have the peonies bloomed out their full time without this beating storm.
But it is not just sorrow at the destruction of beauty that makes me remember those yearly storms. It is the significance of the condition in which it leaves the flowers. The same wind and water pushing through the flowering orchard will rain the petals down like snow. But unless the storm is followed by an unseasonable freeze, the fruit will go on and mature. The fragile petals have already served their purpose: to advertise to all the wandering bees where the pollen and the nectar are to be found. The wind severs their hold on the tree, and they fall to a momentary death on the ground; in a few hours they have passed back into the soil, to yield up their chemical constituents as food for the future life of other plants. Even in death they serve.
But not so the peonies. They sway on their yielding stems and beat their massive heads against the wet soil or one another until they are black and broken and altogether unlovely. But they cling to their stems, and the day after the storm the flower plot which was a place of delight has become a place of disgust. No purpose of either beauty or use is served by peony flowers in their death. It is death with them—decay, putrefaction. With the fruit petals it is a transformation into another form of service.
The peony flowers produce no seeds—they would not even if they had not been overtaken by calamity. If left to spend their natural course on the plants, they would have become sodden masses of decay sullenly clutching at a beauty that had vanished. They are beautiful when they are young and gay.
The seedlessness of the peonies is the reason for the difference. The roses and the apple blossoms fall away in an unselfish abnegation to make way for the fruit. To paraphrase the profoundest truth of Christian experience (Philippians 1:21) for the flowers: To them to live is service, and to die is greater service. But not so with the peonies. Theynever served any purpose but display of their own beauty, and that betrayed them; in passing away, they became hideous, and they left no fruit. Whenever horticulturists have bred flowers simply for size and doubleness and display, until the abnormal flowers have completely lost their original purpose of fruit bearing, the same putrefying "death" of the flowers is witnessed. But flowers which, no matter how beautiful they may be, yet preserve their function of fruit bearing are beautiful even as they pass away. Young women who aim only at physical beauty and pleasure might take notice.