Garden Peonies, the Perfect Perennial
Peonies – those over-the-top blowsy flowers with rich heady perfume have got to be my all time favorite flower. Each year I look forward to the red buds poking out of the soil, and anticipate the reincarnation of these lovely versatile perennials. Not only are the flowers enormous, colorful and striking; the foliage is handsome and looks good all summer long. Little wonder that early pioneers brought rootstock to plant around their homes, where these long-lived plants thrived for years.
Peony or Paeonia, plants are native to Asia, parts of Europe and western North America. The most commonly grown variety, originating in China, is P. lactiflora, with hundreds of hybrids available. This common garden peony has large compound leaves that form an attractive multi-stemmed bush like plant two to four feet in height and diameter. Peonies thrive best in a sunny location, with well drained rich soul. Hardy right down to zone 2, these herbaceous perennials will thrive in almost any location except hot dry ones.
Peonies all have five or more outer petals and a center of stamens or modified stamens. In the single forms, the many stamens are pollen bearing. Bomb peonies have a dense center where stamens have been transformed into narrow petals called petaloides. Semi-double types have many petaloides that are interspersed with the regular stamens, and in full double peonies the stamens and carpels all have developed into petals like the guard petals. Japanese and anemone peonies have more than one row of guard petals, but their centers differ.
Peonies are best planted in the fall, in deep rich soil, but can also be planted in early spring. Dig a large hole so the roots are not crowded, and put some good compost or rotted manure in the bottom. Place the peony so that the new buds are no more than 2 inches below the surface when you fill in around the rootball with rich soil. Water well after planting. Your new plants may take a few years to get established, so do not move them. Peonies do not like to be disturbed.
Once the roots do become overcrowded, the plants should be divided in the fall. As you lift out the rootball with its thick fleshy roots, look for the eyes or growth points. Make sure each part you section has a minimum of three eyes and has strong roots. Dig large holes about 2 feet in diameter centered three feet apart to give new plants room to grow. As you re-plant the new peony divisions, ensure that they are planted no deeper than they were originally growing. Planting too deeply will prevent the plants from blooming.
Peonies, with their exquisite huge blooms, make wonderful cut flowers. The flowers, anywhere from 4 to 6 inches can be white, pink, rose, lavender, magenta or yellow, in many shades. Supports are usually needed to help hold up the stems bearing these large heavy flowers, as rain can damage the blossoms. Below are just a few of the popular cultivars of P. lactiflora:
Big Ben: This red bomb-type blooms in early summer, with fragrant flowers atop 36 inch stems. A favorite for many years.
Sarah Bernhardt: A favorite since 1906, this pink double has fragrant flowers of soft seashell pink with petals edged a trifle lighter.
Bowl of Beauty: Fuschia pink outer petals surround a center of creamy staminodes, often with deep rose petals bursting from center of this very fragrant Japanese type.
Coral Charm: Semi-double early-midseason coral blooms on 40 "tall plants. Very vigorous, with large cup-shaped flowers. APS Gold Medal Award 1986.
Krinkled White: Pure white single blooms have large, crepe-paper textured petals with a tuft of golden yellow stamens in center. Stands up in rain.
Lady Alexandra Duff: The pale mauve-pink double flowers lighten in the center. A much loved heirloom variety with a loose, romantic form and a lovely fragrance.
Madame de Verneville: This double, very fragrant cultivar has a center crown of white with a few crimson flecks and a glow of yellow from the inner base. Heirloom variety.
Maestro: A dark red, double, lightly fragrant flower with yellow stamens interspersed throughout. Holds itself erect.
Nippon Beauty: A deep garnet, Japanese type, lightly fragrant blooms have petaloid tips flushed and edged in gold. Lovely in arrangements. Reddish colored seedpods are a bonus.
Red Charm: Gigantic deep crimson bomb type blooms with a multitude of petals piled high in the center, and having a light clove fragrance. A very popular peony.
With stunningly beautiful flowers and attractive foliage, long lived peonies have captivated the hearts of gardeners for many years. My biggest decision was where to stop with this list. Your biggest decision will be just where to start.