“The Ant King Palace~Yosa Buson (1716-1784)*
opens its carmine door:
Peony in bloom.”
It doesn’t take a scholar of 18th-century Japanese haiku to know that Peonies and ants often go together. Some of us encountered ants crawling on the rounded buds of Peonies when we were little, when bugs were “cool.” (In fact, this plant-critter connection was so fascinating to one precocious youngster that she became an entomologist.**) More of us, alas, approach the subject having experienced struggles removing the insects from our kitchen countertops. The idea of ants inhabiting one of the showiest of all garden flowers may, to some, seem a bit off-putting.
But there is good news: Peonies and ants are a match made in heaven. This isn’t because ants somehow encourage the buds of Peonies to open into magnificent bloom (a myth believed by some gardeners). Rather, ants and Peonies are an example of biological symbiosis. These hard-working bugs gain an early-season food source in the sweet, nutritious nectar that coats the exterior sepals surrounding each flower bud. On the flip side, Peonies benefit from ants, who defend their buffet from bloom-damaging insects such as aphids and thrips.
This mutual relationship is far from an infestation (and certainly does not warrant insecticide). When the nectar is gone, the ants go home. The only concern arises when you want to cut some of your glorious Peony blooms for indoors. To avoid letting ants loose in your house:
- Hold cut stems upside down, with your fingertips just below the flowers, and gently shake them. Rinsing or immersing the blossoms in water can also help remove ants (you can always return any swimmers to the great outdoors).
- Another method is to cut Peonies while still in bud stage. The timing of this is important. Cut the buds when they are soft to the touch, otherwise known as “marshmallow stage.” It’s easy from there to brush or rinse off any ants, and the buds will open gradually within several hours to a couple days.
There you have it. Next time you spy ants on your Peonies, hopefully you will take a step back and marvel.
*Terebess Asia Online. See: https://otove.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/buson_haiku.pdf.
**Monique Rivera, “From Garden Peonies to a Career Studying Ant-Plant Interactions,” Entomology Today (May 31, 2018). See: https://entomologytoday.org/2018/05/31/kate-mathis-standout-early-career-professional-garden-peonies-career-studying-ant-plant-interactions/.