Mystery peonies

In the fall of 2008 my husband cleared our woods along the road, cutting out dead trees and brambles. The next spring, I spotted little shoots that looked like peonies. As they grew taller, I was sure they were peonies, though rather spindly and thin but oodles of them, at least a couple of hundreds, and in an almost straight line. That could not be possible! This has always been farmland, the area along the road had never been cultivated. Besides, peonies are imports from Asia, and they don’t just spread massively through seeds.

I contacted Doris Cross, a peony expert who is active in the Heritage Peony Garden and annual Peony Fest at the Museum at the Shacksboro Schoolhouse in Baldwinsville, New York. She suggested I look for an old foundation, saying that she dug peonies from underneath trees that had grown up around them for 60 years, and that peonies easily grow for a hundred years in one spot without a problem, “so think long range.” I did not poke around for a foundation because my husband was absolutely sure that there had ever been a dwelling. However I started digging out the peonies before they were overgrown again. First I tried with a few to see how they would do up on the windy hill by our house. I took a chance transplanting them in the spring instead of the fall and they made it.

After the trial transplants were established and one of them bloomed last spring – a beautiful, faint rose-color with a creamy yellow center and pink accents – I felt emboldened to undertake a large-scale rescue mission and dug out as many peonies as I could. Again I defied the rules of gardening. I did not have time the previous fall but I also did not want to delay the move any longer. It was tough work getting the peonies out of the ground, the soil being the texture of a thickly woven fabric, and I had to cut through surface tree roots. I planted as many peonies as I could around the house and gave several buckets full to friends.

The answer to the peony mystery came by chance through an aerial photo that my husband and I bought at the door (first time I ever did something like this, I still find it a bit embarrassing to admit but it is a nice shot). When we hung it up next to the old aerial picture from almost 30 years ago, I had a closer look. The area where I found the peonies was the only stretch free of any trees in the otherwise wooded area along the road.

Then the pieces of the puzzle started to come together. The area across the street from us, a few hundred yards away from the old Pennsylvania Dutch homestead, used to be a picnic area, long before the road was carved and paved. The peonies were planted so that the families had a nice view up the hill during their Sunday gatherings after church. Whoever did this must have had a real passion for gardening. Just as Doris Cross had written to me, peonies “were the house wife’s garden along the road”. Yet this was peonies en masse, maybe acquired by channeling away some of the household money over time, or cheaply bought wholesale, or bartered.

The peonies by the house are thriving and I am thrilled to see many of them blooming for the first time. There are a few more peonies to be rescued in the woods, to which I will get this fall.

Meanwhile I found out that peony flowers are edible. Of course I had to find a way to celebrate those resurfaced treasures by incorporating them into our Sunday cake.

Yogurt Mousse Cake

Sponge base:

2 large eggs, separated

2 tablespoons warm water

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

¾ cup cake flour

Pinch of salt


2 cups heavy cream

1/3 cup cold water

2 scant tablespoons unflavored gelatin

2 cups Greek yogurt (0%)

1/4 cup lemon juice

1 cup sugar

1. For the sponge base, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place a large piece of parchment paper over the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan. Make sure it is taught, then clip on the rim and cut off the excess parchment paper. Grease the sides.

2. Beat the egg yolks with the warm water and the sugar until light colored and creamy. Add the vanilla extract.

3. Sift the cake flour over the mixture and fold in thoroughly until no lumps remain.

4. Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they stand in stiff peaks. Fold into the dough. Pour into the prepared pan and even the dough out with a spatula or a large knife. Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool for a few minutes, then take the sponge cake out of the pan and carefully peel off parchment. Let cool on a cake rack.

5. For the filling, whip the cream until stiff. Refrigerate.

6. Put the water in a small heatproof bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over it. Set aside.

7. With an electric mixer beat the yogurt with the lemon juice and sugar until the sugar is fully dissolved.

8. Bring water to a bowl in small saucepan. Lower the bowl with the gelatin into the water, making sure no boiling water spills into it. Stir until the gelatin is liquid and fully dissolved. Remove the bowl with the gelatin with kitchen tongs.

9. Immediately add 1 tablespoon of the yogurt mix and stir until completely incorporated. Add 4 to 5 more tablespoons the same way until the gelatin mix is cooled. It should be smooth and not contain any lumps. Dump the gelatin into the yogurt mix and beat with an electric mixer until well blended.

10. Fold the whipped cream into the yogurt mix until well blended. You may also give it a quick whisk with an electric mixer to blend the two, as long as you don’t overmix.

11. Place the sponge cake back into the springform pan and grease the sides. If the sponge has shrunk during baking, push it down gently so it completely fills the pan. Pour the filling into the pan and even it out with a knife or a spatula. Cover with a cake dome (no plastic wrap, it will cling and mess up the surface) and refrigerate until set, at least 4 yours. Run a large knife dipped in cold water all around the filling to loosen, then carefully remove the rim. Decorate with edible flowers or fresh fruit.

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