Fabulous Peony

Going to my grandma’s house was special. That doesn’t seem like an extraordinary comment. Most people enjoy going to “Grandma’s house.” What’s the song about it? “Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go! The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifting snooo-ow.” For me, I traveled in the back of a custom cruiser station wagon, sometimes through snow, often through rain or that grey nebulous cloud cover of northern Ohio. But in springtime, Grandma’s house looked especially fresh and welcoming. That’s because of the rows of peonies gracing the eastern side of the house with their gentle pinks bending their heavy heads under the rain. The peony is one of my favorite flowers. Those blooms are, in current vernacular, ginormous. Ever so old-fashioned, they seem to speak of lace handkerchiefs and hand-painted tea pots, china dolls and strands of pearls – true, gentle, feminine grace.
When Grandma sold her farm to move into an assisted living apartment, I took a shovel and bag with me the day of the move. I upended several of those peony bushes and carefully bagged them with some water around the bulby roots. Back at home, I planted the peonies out front, around an ugly utility box by the sidewalk. The first couple of years were dodgy for the plants. They must have been in plant shock after leaving their home of so many years. In fact, I’ve never seen them restored to their previous glory. When we moved overseas, there was no way to take them with me, and by the time we moved back to the states, we had sold that house and Grandma’s peonies were no longer mine. I haven’t been by the old house in spring, so I don’t know if the peonies are still there or not.
Last year, when we moved into our new house, I made several trips to garden centers looking for landscaping ideas and plants that would show off our newly remodeled pool and hardscape. During one such trip, I was greeted at the entrance to the center by a red-leaved, variegated peony that took my breath away. Whites and shades of pink adorn this beauty’s petals in elegant swirls. It now resides in a place where I can see it every morning. It has been sleeping all winter, cut back and appearing dead. But the stalks are rising, the buds are forming, the leaves are open and I await breathlessly the opening of that first blossom. We’ve had so much rain lately that when it does open it will no doubt bend its enchanting head under the weight of its water load, sending mini showers when the wind touches it.
I’ve also been awaiting my first taste of Peony White Needle, a white tea carried by Compassion Tea. What is the right time to drink this tea? How could a tea reflect a peony in taste? What does a peony taste like? This morning was the right time. Those in the house who needed to be up and out were out. Those who were staying in were still asleep. The dog and I had been out for the morning walk and it had been drizzling after a night of steady, hard rain and even some unheard-of-in-these-parts thunder and lightning. But suddenly the sun broke through with stunning radiance, igniting hundreds of little rainbows in the droplets that were hanging from every surface. Quiet and glorious, the morning was shaping up as the perfect moment. So, I fired up the kettle.
All teas — white, green, black – are made from the same tea plant, the Camellia sinensis plant. White tea is actually collected from a variety of this plant, either the Narcissus or chaicha bush. The leaves are picked between March 15 and April 10 to ensure the earliest spring buds of the leaves, unfurled and undamaged, are collected. These buds must appear velvety light green, almost gray. According to the Specialty Tea Institute, “it takes more than 4,500 hand-sorted leaf buds to make a pound of this tea.” Delicate, tender, painstakingly gathered, the buds are withered outside if the weather allows and then dried. Very little is done to the leaves so watching a white needle tea brew is spectacular. The needles hold their shape; they simply expand as they soak in the water. The tea is light and delicate in color and taste.
And adding a touch of peony to the tea is fabulous. It comes across crisp yet delicate, gentle and soothing, radiantly feminine. Like a dew-covered blossom nodding in the breeze, this cup of tea exudes grace and beauty. Grandma, I tip my cup to you and to this new method of paying tribute to your fabulous peonies.

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