Peonies are familiar to most people from their many cultivated varieties and the nearly 40 species that range across Eursia from Spain to Japan. Only two occur in the western hemisphere: Paeonia californica (mostly in the coastal ranges of southern California and northern Baja California) and Paeonia brownii (from the Sierra Nevada, North Coast Ranges, and Cascade Range to Wyoming).
Paeonia brownii is fairly common in dry pine forests, sagebrush scrub, and aspen groves in mountains from central California, Nevada, and Utah to Washington and Idaho. In the Bodie Hills I’ve seen it only among aspens in the Lakeview Spring area, but it’s likely to be present in or near some other large aspen groves as well.
It’s easy to recognize—nothing else in its range looks like this plant. It’s a low, mound-shaped perennial herb, up to a foot or so tall. The large, slightly fleshy, green to bluish-green leaves are ternately (3 times) divided, with the outermost lobes more-or-less elliptic in shape. The primitive-looking flowers usually hang downward. Their leathery, maroon-colored sepals and petals enclose a dense cluster of yellow stamens.
A couple of interesting notes on the ecology of Brown’s peony: The flowers are pollinated mostly by Vespid wasps (e.g., queen hornets), Syrphid flies (flower flies), and Halictid bees (sweat bees) (Bernhardt et al. 2013). The seeds are large enough to be attractive to seed-caching rodents, like chipmunks, deer mice, and pocket mice, but are not as nutritious or as abundant as the seeds of pine trees. This may benefit the peony in that the rodents help disperse the seeds to their caches, but are slow to consume them, so some of the seeds survive to germinate (Barga and Vander Wall 2013).
Barga, Sarah C., and Stephen B. Vander Wall. “Dispersal of an herbaceous perennial, Paeonia brownii, by scatter-hoarding rodents.” Écoscience 20.2 (2013): 172-181.
Bernhardt, Peter, Retha Meier, and Nan Vance. “Pollination ecology and floral function of Brown’s peony (Paeonia brownii) in the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon.” Journal of Pollination Ecology 11 (2013).
Copyright © Tim Messick 2015. All rights reserved.