A PASSION FOR PEONIES

This blog is dedicated to my beloved mom, Miss Thellie, who embued me with my love of peonies.

Peonies are beautiful flowering plants that deserve a place in every garden. Many varieties make marvelous cut flowers; for sheer splendor in the vase, they are really hard to beat. How can you go wrong with ‘Cora Louise’ (pictured below)? 

All peonies are perennials which means they come back year after year. Yes, they are on the expensive side, but bear in mind they are an investment in your garden as they are phenomenally long-lived; it’s not unknown for peonies to last 50 – 70 years!  

1. TYPES OF PEONIES

Peonies come in three main types:

Herbaceous Peonies: This is the type of peony normally associated with cut flowers. During the winter they go dormant—the stems die down completely and emerge in the spring. It’s a good idea to place a marker where you planted them so that you don’t inadvertently damage the roots in winter by digging them up. Examples include: ‘Coral Charm’ ( pictured below), ‘Dr Alexander Fleming’ and ‘Henry Bockstoce’.

Tree Peonies: These are the ‘show-offs’ in the peony world; they are known for their enormous flowers – some may measure up to 7 inches in diameter – literally the size of a dinner plate! Examples include: ‘Feng Dan Bai – Phoenix White’ (pictured below),  ‘Surprise Pinks’ and ‘Wu Long Peng Sheng’ .

Tree peonies are deciduous sub-shrubs – small shrubs not really trees – with woody stems which lose their leaves, but retain their stem structure in winter, rather like a rosebush. They will, over considerable time, grow taller than herbaceous peonies. They are often grafted onto a hardy herbaceous rootstock.

Intersectional (Itoh) Hybrids: This is a cross between a tree peony and herbaceous peony and incorporates the best of both worlds—the sheer glory of the tree peony flowers coupled with the growth habit of the herbaceous peony. They are wonderful cut flowers and will flower over an extended period of time. Just like herbaceous peonies, they die down completely during the winter. Examples include: ‘Bartzella’ (pictured below) ‘Cora Louise’ and ‘Pastel Splendor’.

2. CHARACTERISTICS OF THE PEONY FLOWER

Peonies come in many different flower forms: Peonies range from single—‘Feng Dan Bai’, to semi-double—‘Buckeye Belle’, to fully double—‘Karl Rosenfield’.

Some flowers resemble an anemone—‘Do Tell’ , some are crown-shaped—‘Lois’ Choice’ and others are bomb-shaped—‘Raspberry Sundae’. Peony flowers are very diverse.

Peonies also vary in fragrance: Some varieties are heavily fragrant, others less so; ‘Festiva Maxima’ and ‘Duchesse de Nemours’ have an intoxicating fragrance. To avoid disappointment, read the catalog descriptions.

Peonies come in a wide range of colors:  including white—‘Bowl of Cream’, pink—‘Catharina Fontijn’, red—‘Red Magic’, purple—‘Peter Brand’, maroon—‘Armani’, yellow—‘Lemon Chiffon’ and even green like ‘Dou Lu’. Bi-colors such as ‘Shima Nishiki’ (pictured below), are few and far between.

3. GROWING ZONE REQUIREMENTS

Herbaceous peonies thrive in zones 2 – 8 since they require a colder growing season. Their tree peony cousins grow in zones 4 – 8.

If you grow peonies in a warmer climate, then you may have more success with tree peonies. If you go the herbaceous peony route, choose varieties that flower earlier in the season.

We are able to grow herbaceous peonies in zone 9b with a wing and a prayer! At the well-known Filoli Gardens in Woodside, California – just outside of San Francisco – all three types of peonies flourish. Know your microclimate!

4. CULTIVATION REQUIREMENTS

Soil requirements:  All peonies relish a rich, fertile, friable soil.  They do well in a neutral to slightly alkaline soil, although tree peonies will tolerate a more acidic soil.

Water requirements:  They require a moist, but well-drained soil, Peonies hate ‘wet-feet’ and will not survive in a water-logged soil. If you grow them in a container, provide really good drainage; this is key to successful peony cultivation in pots.

Peonies thrive in full sun: Although peonies do prefer 6- 8 hours of full sun, you can grow them where they will only get 4 hours of sunshine; this could work to your advantage if you are in a warmer zone. Indeed, in China, they provide ‘sun-shades’ to protect the flowers from extreme heat, which does shorten the life of the flower.

Some peonies require support:  Some herbaceous peonies have what are called ‘lax’ stems.  Essentially, the flower is so full and heavy that the stems may require some form of support. This information is normally included in the peony catalog. Tree peonies and Itohs generally don’t require staking.

5. BARE ROOT PEONIES

Bare-root or potted (container-grown) peonies: Some nurseries sell peonies ready potted up in containers. Make sure that you plant them at the same depth as they were in the nursery pot. Potted peonies are usually planted in the spring.

Many peony farms sell their plants bare-rooted (without soil).  This is a more economical option, and you will have a wider variety to choose from. Always plants the bare-root tuber as soon as possible to avoid it drying out.

Buy the oldest peonies you can afford. Herbaceous peonies are usual sold with 3 – 5 eyes or buds – these eyes will develop into stems.  Wherever possible avoid buying ‘young’ peonies. Try to buy 3 to 4 year-old plants; otherwise you may wait years for them to mature and flower.

The best time to plant bare-root stock is in the fall (autumn); this allows them to establish a good root system.

6. HOW TO PLANT PEONIES

Follow the directions that should accompany the bare-root peony.

Ensure that you dig a generous hole—two foot in diameter and depth. Incorporate organic material such as compost/vermicompost in the hole. Mix a soil starter fertilizer in with your soil.

Make a mound within the hole. Spread the roots out on top of the mound with the eyes facing upward. Spread the roots over the mound.

Ensure that the buds are just 2 inches below the soil surface. You do not want to plant it too deep – this may result in the peony not flowering. In warmer zones reduce the depth to 1 inch. Gently fill in the hole and tamp the soil carefully. Mark the peony with a label.  Water in your newly planted peony according to the supplier’s directions.

Avoid planting peonies too close to other shrubs and trees; they do not like to compete for their food! If planting more than one peony, space them 3 – 4 feet apart to allow for good air circulation; this will reduce fungal disease.

Also, do not overwater your young peonies—that is one of the biggest reasons why peonies fail.

7. FLOWERING SEASON AND CUTTING PEONIES

Peony flowering season: Peonies bloom from early spring through early summer depending largely on the variety that you are growing.

You will see peonies listed as early, mid-season or late-blooming. ‘Coral Charm’ is an example of an early flowering peony; ‘Krinkled White’ (pictured below) flowers mid-season and ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ is late-flowering. If you are in an area that enjoys sufficient cold, try to select varieties from each of these categories so that you will be able to enjoy their superb flowers over a long period.

Cutting peonies for the vase: For best results pick them in the early morning when the buds are in the soft bud stage—if you gently squeeze them, they have a ‘marshmellowy’ feel to them! Brush or blow off any ants (see below) and strip the foliage. 

Peonies can be stored, at this stage, in the fridge:  Wrap the stems in newspaper – no water – and use within 3 weeks! To revive them, cut an inch off the bottom of the stem and place in water, and they will miraculously open!

8. CARING FOR YOUR PEONY PLANTS

Fertilizing peonies: I recommend using a starter fertilizer when you plant your peony and afterwards use a bulb fertilizer in the early spring as they break dormancy and start to shoot.  Do not overfertilize—avoid high nitrogenous fertilizers which result in lots of foliage growth at the expense of flowers.

Deadheading your peonies:  remove the faded flowers; you don’t want your plant putting its energy into seed production.

Tree peonies do not require any trimming unless a stem has died, in which case you should remove the dead part. Do not remove the leaves; allow them to fall off naturally.

Herbaceous and Itohs should be cut back to ground level in the fall. This will help curb disease.

Mulching peonies: If you live in a very cold zone, mulch them in their first winter to afford the newly planted roots some protection. Thereafter, you should not need to do so; peonies really are pretty tough. If you are in a very warm zone then I recommend mulching during the hotter months, but remove the mulch in the fall. You want the maximize the amount of cold exposure, so you don’t want to provide them with a mulch blanket which will conserve warmth in the winter. 

Use pine needles or bark or similar for mulching.

Peonies resent root disturbance – Peonies do not like to be transplanted.  If possible, plant your peony in its forever location from the get-go! Moving a peony may result in it taking a couple of years to recover and flower. Similarly, resist the temptation to divide your peonies unless absolutely necessary!

Ants and Peonies: One can’t really write a blog on peonies without mentioning ants.  The nectar on peony buds will attract ants. It is very common to see buds crawling with ants.  They will not damage the plant; leave them be and just shake them off or immerse the flowers in water after you’ve picked them.

 9. PEONY SUPPLIERS

Peonies are expensive – always try to purchase from a reputable supplier. I highly recommend Adelman Peony Gardens for quality peonies. Cricket Hill Garden has a wonderful selection of tree peonies, and Peony Envy’s catalog will blow your socks off.  You may have to resist the temptation to buy too many!  Remember that bareroot peonies ship in the fall. To avoid disappointment, order early.

Peonies are slow growers; If you are looking for instant gratification, then peonies are not the plant for you. Your newly purchased peony will take a while to settle in; Be patient, they are worth the wait. They are slow to mature, but in return they will give many, many years of pleasure. In peony cultivation, there’s a saying:

Year 1 sleep; Year 2 creep; Year 3 leap!

Enjoy your peony treasures; they will give you immense pleasure and bring you much joy in your garden.

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Happy Gardening!

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