One of the blessings of living in Sonoma County is that every May, just around Mother’s Day, we experience nature in full bloom. The ride to Paul Campion’s splendid peony farm, Paeonia, on the outskirts of Sebastopol is a journey down country roads awash in old roses, snowball bushes, bottle brush, lacey wild fennel and grasses just beginning their seasonal turn from green to gold. A visit to this magical farm, set in a dwindling but lovely and fragrant apple farming region, lets us appreciate nature–and for a few moments, forget our problems (unless we suffer seasonal allergies). Visiting on Mother’s Day has become an annual event for my family, topped off by a visit to Screamin’ Mimie’s in Sebastopol for home-made ice cream on the way home.
Paeonia is a two acre farm devoted to peonies, set in a valley with a temperate micro-climate perfect for growing peonies—very cool in the winter and warm in the early spring. It seems a stone’s throw from Bodega but is actually about 20 minutes from the sea. Campion, an ophthalmologist, is fanatical about his peonies and so is the public which travels from all over the Bay Area for the few weekends in May that he open his gardens to the public. Mother’s Day visitors were still coming strong at 4 pm.
Campion grows over 70 varieties of Tree, Herbaceous and Itoh hybrids—carefully grouped and worked into meandering paths that Campion and his three young sons plowed by tractor as a kind boys’ bonding experience. It took them over a year to convert this former brambled Arabian horse ranch to its current West County meets Asia fusion. The stock seems modest compared to the specialty nurseries awash with roses, but Campion has selectively honed his plants retaining only those that will produce spectacular results in here in the Bay Area. Paeonia is Japanese inspired and there are Japanese maples, cedars, ornamental cherries, dogwoods and an enormous Buddha on one end of the grounds. To the side of his formal gardens, are chickens scratching for grain and insects and adorable Nubian goats that he keeps in a converted horse barn—all the makings for a lovely country outing for city folk. Campion’s home is there too, simple and tastefully executed, blending in rather than shouting out. Campion’s office manager for his optometry practice pulls weekend shifts in April and May meeting, greeting, and selling plants as guests enter. When asked why the telephone number has disappeared from Paeonia’s webpage, she feigns ignorance.
For those of us who garden, there’s the flower talk…how has he augmented his soil? How does he fertilize? How often does he water and how? How old are these huge plants anyway? Can I achieve this in a pot? Why are there ants crawling on my peony buds? (this is due to the nectar that forms on the bud) And the list goes on. Campion is there in his garden chatting, fielding questions—the word “organic” comes up frequently-and pushing a Lynn Woolsey fundraising event coming up later in May.
After a few minutes, the magic of the place takes over. Even the most begrudging visitors—partners dragged along by their significant other OR by their significant other using the “mother would love this” excuse—succumb, no melt, in the presence of these big bold blooms in pinks, yellow, reds, and shades of cocoa-orange. These flowers are erotic…not crass (Mapplethorpe’s lilies) but their huge central tufts of bushy anthers ensconced in petals do entice…and the mind wanders to other things. The names of two particularly gorgeous herbaceous plants seem crassly American—“Showgirl” pink with creamy ivory anthers and “Do Tell” pink with pink anthers– and almost counter to the regal beauty of these flowers which have long been associated with Asia, particularly China.
The mythology around the peony abounds. Mischievous nymphs were said to hide in the petals causing this magnificent flower to be given the meaning of Shame or Bashfulness in the Language of Flowers. One legend tells that the peony is named after Paeon, a physician to the gods, who received the flower on Mount Olympus from the mother of Apollo. Another myth tells the story of that same physician, Paeon, who angered his teacher Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing. When Asclepius became enraged and jealous of his pupil Paeon, Zeus intervened and spared Paeon from dying as mortals do by being turned into a peony flower. Another story links the peony to a moon goddess who created this flower to reflect the moon’s beams during the night. I also read that during the Middle Ages, lunatics were covered with the petals and leaves of the peony as it was thought it to cure them.
How I long for a man who will woo me with peonies..but, for now, I can buy my own plant for $35 and within two years, I will have my own steady supply.