Do peonies really need help from ants to bloom? Garden folklore says that ants “tickle the buds” to help the flowers open. Peonies and ants do have a mutually-beneficial relationship, but it’s not quite what you may think. Here’s the story about peonies and ants—plus, tips on how to bring peonies indoors without the ants.
In late spring, we rejoice in the breathtakingly beautiful peony blossoms. However, those of us with peonies in our garden may also notice the ants’ arrival, especially around the peony’s base or on unopened buds.
Are Ants Harmful to Peonies?
Let’s get this first question out of the way. No. Absolutely not. Don’t bother brushing off those ants—or, worse, breaking out the insecticide!
Not only are ants NOT harmful, they are actually an example of biological mutualism. The peonies provide nectar (food) for the ants; the ants protect the peonies from aphids, thrips, and other non-beneficial insect pests.
Do Peonies Need Ants to Bloom?
The enduring myth is that peonies require ants to open their buds. You may have heard that ants need to “tickle the buds” or “lick the sugar” for the peonies to bloom.
Nope. A peony will open beautifully without the presence of ants.
As with most folklore, there may have once been a hint of truth to this claim, but we haven’t seen evidence for it yet. (We also like this folklore because it keeps both peonies and ants alive, and allows nature to take its course!)
Why Ants Are Attracted to Peonies
Ants are simply attracted to the sugary droplets (nectar) which is present at the base of the green sepals that surround a peony bud. This is a great food source for ants, containing not only sugars, but also amino acids, lipids, and other organic compounds.
The ants are NOT eating the peonies. When a scout ant finds the nectar on the peony, she emits a pheromone or odor trail on the way back to her nest. At the nest, the scout alerts other ants of the food source. The recruited ants then follow the odor trail back to nectar on the peony flowers.
In turn, the ants actually provide the plant with some protection! While the ants are feeding on the nectar, they protect their food source by attacking other bud-eating pests by stinging, biting, or spraying them with acid and tossing them off the plant.
Also, the ants are temporary. Once the peony blossoms, the ants will leave the peony flower and move on to seek other food sources.
Again: If you do NOT have ants (perhaps you live on a rooftop), the peony blossoms would open regardless of the ants’ presence.
How to Get Rid of Ants on Peonies Before Bringing Indoors
We treasure our pink, red, and old-fashioned white peonies in the garden, but also like to fill the house with their beauty and fragrance. However, how do we avoid bringing the ants inside, too?
There are a few methods:
Cut the peony early in the morning when the dew is still heavy and most of the ants haven’t arrived. Hold the peonies by the stem just below the flower (so their head doesn’t snap off) and turn the flowers upside down. Give the flowers a few good taps on the stems just up from the flowers. This helps dislodge insects and arachnids. Use the amount of force appropriate for the stem.
Fill a big bowl with cool water outside, then dip each peony bloom and watch the ants come out. Don’t fill the bowl too much, or they will be able to crawl out. Then gently shake/tap the water off the flower and put the stem into a ready vase so that they won’t pick up more ants. You can then release the ants and the water in the bowl back into nature.
Yet another method by professional growers is to cut the peony flowers before buds fully open. However, you need to cut the peony at the “marshmallow” stage (see picture above) in order for the buds to open indoors.