Peonies, Plants of Memory

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Peonies, Plants of Memory

Not so long ago, nearly every home garden radiated beauty and serenity from roses, irises and peonies.

Today, if you drive through an older neighborhood, the original homeowners might be long gone, but one flower would still remain blooming. Which one? The peony of course.

For years, gardeners only grew a couple of different types of peonies:
• Herbaceous Paeonia spp. hybrids which came up fresh every year from the ground and are classified by the type of bloom they have, and

Peony 'Festiva Maxima'

•Paeonia suffruticosa, tree peonies, woody branching shrubs that bloom earlier than the herbaceous ones. That all changed when Itoh or intersectional peonies came on the scene. A cross between tree peonies and herbaceous species, they were developed byToichi Itoh of Japan. Itohs are the current celebrities of the peony world with larger flowers resembling the tree peony, but dying back to the ground each winter. Many prized Itoh peonies sport yellow or coppery peach blossoms like Paeonia (Itoh) 'Kopper Kettle’ below.

Peony Itoh 'Kopper Kettle'

They also have strong stems to support their nodding heads. I want an Itoh, but I’m waiting a bit longer for prices to come down. Although I love tree peonies’ papery soft blooms, and I grow ‘Guardian of the Monastery’ and ‘Brocaded Gown’, in my part of the middle south, they either look like wet blankets in the rain, or the heat causes them to last only a day or two which is highly disappointing.

tree peony

On the other hand, herbaceous peonies, easily found at most nurseries and box stores, are simple to grow. To keep leaf diseases from destroying the foliage, employ good garden maintenance by removing foliage after frost and keeping the ground beneath the plant clean. I also feed my peonies in spring before bloom and occasionally spray them with compost tea to ward off disease. Remove spent blooms too. Any diseases my peonies had over the years didn’t stop them from blooming well, although late freezes sometimes kill blossoms before they open.

Peony and butterfly1

I’ve often wondered why peonies fell out of favor. I know they have a short bloom time of one to two weeks, but their time on the garden stage is magical. Like bulbs, you can also stagger bloom by growing early, middle and late-blooming varieties. I’m happy to report peonies do seem to be making a comeback perhaps due to the excitement over the Itoh types.

If you buy bare-root plants, herbaceous peonies will be shipped to you in the fall, and you should plant them with the eyes just below the surface of the soil. Most peonies like a bit of cold weather to bloom well although there are a few cultivars which don’t need as much chilling. All peonies in containers can be planted in spring or fall. Position container plants at the level of the soil in the pot, and you should be fine.

Support the heavy heads of herbaceous peonies with some kind of round plant support. I use peony supports like the one in the photo below, but wire tomato cages cut down to size will also work.

Peony 'Flying Saucers' 1

It takes about three years for peonies to reach their full potential so don’t worry if they don’t bloom the year after planting. They will grow and get stronger every year, and your patience will be rewarded.

Peonies can live to be 100 years old or more, and many cultivars are very fragrant. Some even smell of roses. If you plant them, they will become part of your garden as long as you live and even beyond which is pretty amazing for a flower that only blooms for a couple of weeks in spring.