The Magic of Peonies

Paeonia lactiflora 'Karl Rosenfeld' in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Paeonia lactiflora ‘Karl Rosenfeld’ paired with poppies (photo: Kathy Diemer)

If I had to pick a “top-ten” favorite, that is after you held me down and twisted my arm, one of the chosen few would surely include herbaceous peonies.  I’m too much of a plant collector to confess to this often, so categorizing peonies at the top of my list would indicate my deep affection for this well known (and dare I say highly regarded) plant.  And you know I don’t give love to just any plant on the block without good reason, so here’s a few tips and choices for you.

Heirloom Peony 'Sarah Bernhardt' in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Heirloom Peony ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ (photo: Kathy Diemer)

Herbaceous peonies will thrive in almost any garden in zones 3-7 with a minimum of six hours of sunshine and moist, well drained soil.  Paeonia lactiflora, a phenomenal cut flower, blooms late May through June in gorgeous shades of pink, crimson red, white and yellow, with a variety of flower types to suit your deepest desires. (Single, Japanese, Anemone, Semi-Double, Double and Bomb-Double–I fall for the big luscious double blooms, but don’t let me stop you from experimenting with other choices). Peonies are long lived souls (many over 100 years!) that don’t require dividing unless you want to expand the brood.  After bloom, remove any remaining spent heads and enjoy a lush green bush that often turns bronze at the end of summer.  Fall maintenance is simply cutting down to the ground, unless you want to divide.  The key to transplanting is to have a generous clump with four or five “eyes” and planting them no deeper than a few inches.

Paeonia lactiflora 'Sarah Bernhardt' in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Paeonia lactiflora ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ adorns the walkway (photo: Kathy Diemer)

I’ll admit there is a little care for these Asian and Southern Europe natives, however.  No fertilizing or watering or the like, but peonies usually do require some sort of support (hence all the products on the market for this purpose).  Whenever possible, plant your peonies between a few shrubs or evergreens, and let them do the work.  If your plant is out in the open, you will want to consider staking.  Personally, I find most peony hoops difficult to install (there’s always a 4′ diameter rock to complicate matters) so I use an upside-down tomato cage, which works like a charm.  Simply put the wide end about an inch into the ground around the peony (before it gets too high) and let it grow up through the narrowing rings.  This allows some outer stems to weep slightly, while some stay erect in the center, all hiding the silver wire.  Easy, shmeesy.

Removing Peony Sidebuds in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Removing peony sidebuds promotes larger blooms (photo: Kathy Diemer)

One more tip if you care to indulge.  This one was passed on to me by my mother, and grandmother before her.  For huge, showy blossoms, remove all side buds as soon as the main bud is the size of a blueberry.  Removing the side buds allows the stem to put all it’s energy into one single flower, resulting in a bigger encore.  I find this especially helpful when we have a dry spring (like the last several) and my blossoms tend to be smaller anyway.

Paeonia lactiflora ‘Karl Rosenfield’ is still one of the most popular red peonies today and was first introduced in 1908. It offers double purple-red blooms on a 32 inch tall stems.  Only very subtle fragrance on these 4-6 inch blossoms.  Great hot combo when paired with orange poppies!

Paeonia lactiflora ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ is an heirloom selection from 1906 with soft pink flowers and a lovely fragrance. It grows well over 3 feet tall in my garden, and produces incredible grapefruit sized flowers year after year.

Paeonia lactiflora ‘Festiva Maxima’ is an heirloom from the 1850s that’s still popular. It bears illuminating double white flowers with tiny flecks of crimson, superb fragrance (my favorite!) and grows around 3 feet tall as well.

Tree Peony Blossom in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Tree Peony Blossom (photo: Kathy Diemer)

A different peony entirely, Paeonia suffruticosa, or tree peony, is a consideration if you’re looking for taller plant (up to 8 feet tall) with some tolerance for partial shade (suffruticosa can take full sun if kept moist, but she’ll adore you if you give her relief from hot afternoon sun).  For zones 5-9, a tree peony may be your preference for outstanding blossom displays in a wider range of colors than its herbaceous sister, multiple shapes, even a few with fragrance.  They do prefer a little compost sprinkled every now and again, and well drained soil is a must.  However, no staking is needed with tree peonies, nor side bud removal, and only minimal pruning off of winter kill at branch tips.

I grow both, although the tree is much less care overall, the herbaceous peonies have me wrapped around their little stems and I simply can’t resist them, no way, no how . . . just as it should be ♥

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