It’s a well-known fact that peonies attract ants, which crawl around on the flowers, feasting on the sticky sugars they secrete. Once the flower opens fully, and the sucrose has been consumed, the ants depart, whether they are outside or on someone’s dining room table. Those who have had ants leave their centerpiece and march across their dining table tend to take a dim view of peonies as cut flowers.
But there is a simple solution for the ant problem, and it’s one that every commercial peony grower practices: Cut the peonies when they are in bud, before the petals unfurl. If there are ants on the buds, wipe them or shake them off. Then put the peonies in water, and let them bloom inside.
The only trick is to know when the bud is developed enough that it can be cut and opened inside. The perfect time is when the the bud is showing color and is as soft as a marshmallow. For a large double peony such as Sarah Bernhardt, the bud might be about 1.5 inches in diameter when cut; two days later, it will have achieved its full potential.
Peonies cut at the marshmallow stage can also be held in the refrigerator for several weeks. For the home gardener, the peonies can be wrapped loosely in a plastic bag with the cut stem ends exposed, then placed in the back of the fridge. (Warning: If you have apples, cantaloupes or other ethylene-producing fruits in there, you will shorten the vase life of the flowers.) For the commercial grower, the flowers can be rolled up in newspaper, burrito-style, and placed in an opaque plastic container in a cooler. At 35°, they will hold for a month or more. When you are ready to use then, cut an inch from the stem and place in warm, deep water. Depending on the tightness of the bud when it was cut, the flower might take anywhere from eight hours to 48 hours to open fully.
Handled this way, your peonies won’t have ants. And they will be the most gorgeous, extravagant, fragrant cut flower imaginable.
In the photo above, pink ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ peonies are accented with the fuschia Dianthus ‘Purple Bouquet’ and the rich purple Campanula glomerata. The peonies were cut in bud and stored in the cooler for a week, then put in water on Friday morning. This photo was taken on Sunday morning.