Garden folklore has it that peonies “need ants to tickle the buds”, so that we can have beautiful blooms. But unfortunately it’s just a myth. Peonies bloom very well in the absence of ants. So, if it is late spring and your peonies are starting to fill with little crawling insects, you may wonder why.
Well, peonies and ants have a mutualist relationship which benefits both, ants feast on the sweet nutritious nectar secreted by the plant before flowering and in turn they do protect your prized flowers from pests and also clean the plants of disease spores.
We could go so far as to say that ants cleanse the pimples… to make your peonies more dazzling!
While by eliminating the ants, you might attract even worse enemies, but they are annoying if you want to put a big fragrant bouquet in the house!
So let’s understands curious alliance between peonies and ants and how to convince the ants to look elsewhere before bringing cut peonies inside your home.
Peonies Fill with Ants Each Spring
It is a well known fact that in late spring, gardeners see ants crawling all over peonies. And they are here to stay…
They will keep visiting your flowers till June, and in any case, till the end of their generous blooms.
Less experienced gardeners may worry about it, and they could be a little nuisance, especially if you have your peonies close to your home door, or windows…
So, first of all, a little tip: if you have not yet planted your peonies, don’t plant them close to your house!
But apart from this, what looks like a problem really is the opposite: ants and peonies love each other, and I am going to show you why, and why you shouldn’t worry at all about the presence of little crawling insects on your flowering perennials with such beautiful blooms…
Why Do Ants Like Peonies?
With all the flowers in the world and in your garden, ants have a clear preference for peonies. If you have been growing these perennial classics for some years, I am sure you must have noticed it. But why?
The answer is that peonies are unusual flowers… They produce nectar, like all other flowers, but they also have it on the outside of the buds! And this is why ants are attracted to them, even before they blossom.
This substance, nectar, is composed of sugars like sucrose, glucose and fructose, as well as lipids (fats), amino acids and other organic compounds, and this makes it very nutritious for insects, including ants.
No wonder ants like to crawl all over your peonies as soon as the first buds appear: they are like a big and free buffet for them!
How Do Ants Find Your Peonies When in Bud?
But you may wonder how the little ants that live on your land always manage to find the peony buds as soon as they appear…
Well, these insects are very well organized as a society. Within their nest, there are special roles, and one that’s very important is that of the scouts.
These have a very important job for the colony… They crawl around in search for food.
As soon as one single scout finds the nectar on your peony buds, it hurries back to the nest and communicates its discovery producing a pheromone, which it leaves on its trail back.
This way, it doesn’t even need to show the way to the other ants… They follow the scent and chemical information on the trail, like street signs, or, of you want, like the crumbs that Hansel and Gretel left to the house of candy.
And in a very short time, your peony fills with ants… But can this be a problem?
Do Ants Cause Any Other Damage To Peonies?
The big question is whether ants are dangerous to the peonies in your border, and the answer is a resounding “no”, ants do not cause any damage to peonies! In fact ants do not eat your flowers or their leaves. They only feed on the external nectar that they find on the buds, but they cause no damage at all for your plants.
This nectar comes from extrafloral nectaries, which are glands that produce it on the outside of the sepals.
The relationship between ants and peonies is described by botanists and zoologists as mutualism; this means that both the ants and the peonies receive a benefit from it. So, far from being harmful, they are welcome and useful. But why?
Why Are Ants Useful to Peonies?
So, what is this mutualism all about? It’s clear what ants get from peonies, lots of nutritious food. But what do peonies get in return? In a word, protection. Let me explain.
Ants are small but extremely powerful insects, as you know. And they are also jealous of their “property” or foraging fields, if you want.
So, when they find the nectar on a peony, they defend it from other insects and bugs, including dangerous ones.
One particular bug that can be a problem for your peonies are thirps. They too love the nectar on the outside of the buds, but, unlike ants, they pierce through the sepals of the flowers and damage them.
So, if you see ants on your peonies, feel safe; it’s a good sign; it means that no other bugs, including harmful ones, will ever get to them!
Do Peonies Need Ants to Blossom?
On the other hand, the idea that peonies need ants to bloom is pure myth. Ants “do not open peony flowers by licking them” The buds will open with or without ants.
This myth comes from seeing many little ants crawl on the blooms before they open, so, it looks like they are prying open the sepals of this famous flower.
True that nectar is sticky, but it does nothing to hold the bud closed; for this reason, even if you don’t see ants on your peonies, don’t worry… You will still get plenty of beautiful and colorful flowers!
Do You Need to Get Rid of Ants on Your Peonies
Absolutely not! Ants will not damage your peonies, so you don’t need to do anything at all.
No need for insecticides, or even gentler solutions like garlic water to scare them off. Just let them crawl freely all over your shrubs and over the buds, and don’t worry about them.
Actually, ants are almost part and parcel of the idea, or picture, that we have of peonies.
And remember also that ants are very, very useful to your garden and to the health of your soil. In fact, a garden rich in ants is indeed a healthy garden.
Even better, if your garden is lacking in them, plant peonies to attract them, so you get a balanced and vigorous eco-system on your land!
How To Get Ants Off Cut Peonies Before Bringing Them Inside
Ants crawling on your peonies in the garden is one thing; another is having them all over the floor, the wall, the table if you want to have a bouquet indoors! They may well find their way home, in all probability in fact they will, but…
But it’s a nuisance, and then the ants may even find their way to your pantry or bread box… And that can be a real problem…
So, here is what you can do to keep ants off if you want to use your peonies as cut flowers.
Cut the peonies early in the morning; at this time of the day, they have less nectar on them, and ants will not visit them as much. By the way, this is also the best time to get fresh flowers anyway; coming from a cool night, they will last longer and you can enjoy them for a full day to start with!
Check your ants’ habits. Not all ants are active at the same time of day… Carpenter and sugar ants, for example are nocturnal, while many other types tend to be more active during the day. But remember, ants don’t go to sleep for 8 hours as we do: they take between 80 and 250 one minute naps every day. Talk about power napping!
Cut your peonies after sunset, in case the ants that visit them have a diurnal habit. Still, be careful, they can still be at work well after this time, though many will have retired to their nests.
Blow or shake the ants off the stem; this is the most gentle and effective way to get rid of the little insects from the stems of your peonies. You can give them a good shake if you wish, the result is similar. But how about the flowers and buds?
Dip your cut peony in a bowl of warm water; just put some water in a bowl and dip the flower head in it. The ants will crawl out, and you can shake them off. Just make sure it is only warm, not hot! Then, empty the bowl in your garden. There is no need to kill them, and they are very helpful for your garden. And don’t worry, most ants can survive 24 hours under water, and some even 14 days!
Ants and Peonies: A Match Made in Heaven!
Ants and peonies go really well together; each gets some benefit from the presence of the other.
Ok, it is a myth that ants help peonies open their buds, but they still work very well together. And in case you want some cut flowers for your dinner table, you know how to get the little insects out of the way without harming them!
After many years as an academic in London, Adriano Bulla became a writer, publishing books like A History of Gardening, Organic Gardening and Elements of Garden Design; he then decided to become a gardener, following his childhood dream, and has been following his dream writing and gardening professionally in Southern Europe, where he has specialized in new and innovative organic gardening fields and techniques, like permaculture, regenerative agriculture, food forests and hydroponics.