The Memorial Day Peony: A Plant Study

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Plant Study Memorial Day Peonies

Peonies are perfect!

The fragrant, silky-petal, peony, has always been one of my favorite flowers. I didn’t get to know them well until I moved from the South to the Midwest; where winters are cold, peonies have long held a place of honor in gardens of every description. They are among the most treasured cottage-garden flowers of long ago, but they’re not just granny blooms: brides love peonies for bouquets, florists find their voluptuous flowers stylish and sophisticated, and gardeners and garden designers rely on peony plants for their handsome foliage, prolific blooms, and amazing hardiness.

Peonie bud with ants

Peonies are often known as Memorial Day flowers, because many peony varieties bloom in late May, around Memorial Day. I grow dozens of different varieties, so I can rely on their flowers throughout May, from start to finish. They’re all scene-stealers in the garden, and a great luxury in a vase.

Single Pink Peonies

The first to bloom are the single, very early varieties. Each flower has about a dozen petals surrounding a pool of shimmering golden stamens. The big buds are held up on sturdy stems, and they are never so heavy that they droop.

Red Peony

As the season progresses, double and bomb-type peonies, with more petals than you can count, come into bloom. Each plant may produce a dozen or more flowers, and in the cool spring weather, each flower lasts for a week. If a late frost or a hard rain is predicted, it’s my excuse to cut really generous bouquets for the house.

Bouquet of peonies

Most modern garden peonies are hybrids; the names of more than 3,000 cultivars have been registered, and about 1,300 are commercially available. Popular varieties can be found for less than $20, but the price goes up to $40 or $50 for new or rare varieties. The widest selection is to be had from mail-order specialists.

Peony bareroot

Peonies are normally grown from bare roots sold in the fall, but peonies in containers are sometimes available at garden shops in the spring, too. They are hardy and adaptable plants, and can be planted at almost any time of year. They take two or three years to reach their mature size large and bloom profusely after being divided and transplanted. Since they seem to live as long as oak trees, it is important to choose a suitable site for them.

Peonies prefer a bright location, which is why people plant them in big beds out in the middle of their yards. Where summers are hot, morning sun is best. The soil should be loose and loamy: peony experts recommend preparing the soil for a peony bed by digging deeply and adding leafmold. The roots should be planted with their pointy pink growth eyes only 2 inches deep — no deeper. Pay attention to watering the first year they’re in the ground, but, once established, peonies tolerate drought well.

Cutting old foliage off in the garden in spring

Good air circulation and tidy gardening habits help keep peonies healthy. At the end of the gardening season, most gardeners simply clip the foliage off at ground level. Cutting last year’s leaves off in early spring, just as the new shoots emerge from the soil, is fine, too. Use sharp pruners, such as Fiskars Quantum pruners, to cut the old leaf stalks cleanly. Then keep those pruners handy: the flowers will come along before you know it, and you’ll be ready for the most luxurious bouquets in the world, straight from your own back yard.