Peony Season

“In peaceful old gardens that remain unfretted by changing fashions and modern introductions we are apt to find huge bushes of the old May-flowering peony… ”

thus Louise Beebe Wilder, in Color in My Garden, published in 1918.

Still true in 1991, when we bought this house. Its peonies must have been planted by old Miss Wells, last of the line that built the place in the 1870’s and, by the evidence, a demon gardener. By the time we got here, she’d been gone for a dozen years and the gardens were pretty much rack and ruin, but the peonies were everywhere : lined up along the side of the barn, half-hidden under the overgrown hedges, buried in the weed-choked flowerbeds…

Survivors : Antique peonies and blue flag iris, undaunted by ladies bedstraw, milkweed, and rampant bittersweet.

There are some early magenta bombs and even earlier bright red fernleaf ones, but most of them are lactifloras, famously known as memorial day peonies because that’s when they start blooming.

After dividing and moving the ancient clumps, we wound up with – I just went out the other day and counted: 61plants, each of which is about 3 feet wide, covered with dozens of flowers and buds. But do we have single reds with twisted clusters of gold-tipped petaloids in the middle? silky white semi-doubles right out of Japanese prints? perfect apricot coral cups?

Nope. There are literally hundreds of possible peonies, but Ms. Wells was keen on repetition: we have one pink, one dark magenta and one white.

Can’t place the dark one, but I’m pretty sure the silvery pinks are Sarah Bernhardt , a fragrant double with ruffled center petals that made its debut in 1906. The white, a bomb with shell pink outer petals and red streaks at its heart is probably Queen Victoria, called the “Old Farmstead ” peony by Hollingsworth Nursery , which describes this flower’s extensive travels from the East into the Midwest in the early 20th century.

It’s clearly a child of Festiva Maxima, pretty much the same but with more fragrance and without the pink petals and the one peony to have if you’re having only one. Festiva Maxima was introduced in 1851 and I wouldn’t be surprised if the original plant were still alive somewhere.

Peonies are TOUGH, which is part of their charm. Also very handsome when not flowering; the leaves make a lovely hedge behind later blooming flowers and are also a good screen to mask the ripening foliage of spring bulbs. Deer and rabbits do not eat them. They do not need dividing

They are also a great comfort in a difficult world, a link with the past, a bet on the future and big huge silky fragrant luxurious joy in the morning – at least until it rains.

Peony Tips:

*They do need sun, but not that much; with most varieties, you can get decent flowers from a half day’s worth and the farther south you are, the more the peonies can use a break from broiling afternoons.

* Be sure to plant shallowly – those fat growth buds should be no more than an inch and a half below ground. The number one cause of bloom failure is over-deep planting… or, over time, the gradual movement of compost and mulch that buries those buds as effectively as if you had done it yourself.

* They don’t like acid soil; if your rhododendrons are doing great, it’s a sign you should add some lime to the peony bed before you start planting.
Now is a good time to do it, since fall is the best time to plant. Potted peonies can go in the ground now, but the bare root kind must be planted in fall … and the bare root kind is where all the goodies are.

* Never in the compost! The Botrytis blight that plagues them – their own personal fungus: Botrytis paeoniae – is ever present, even on apparently healthy growth, so everything that leaves the peony bed should stay gone: discarded bouquets , the fall cleanup pile, Everything. Burn it if you can, toss it deep into the woods where no peonies will ever grow, or be deeply retrogressive and send it to the landfill.

* Peonies last a long time as cut flowers and can be held in bud stage for a month or more – if you have the room in the refrigerator. For an exhaustive and very useful treatment of cut-flower choices and procedures, download this useful guide, from Kansas State University.

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  • martha blaser Said,

    I live in the central coast area of California. Would I be successful with peonies in my garden?

  • leslie Said,

    In theory, peonies cannot flourish south of zone 8; in practice, there are almost surely at least a few that might be – if not happy, at least willing – to grow in your garden. If you are willing to experiment a bit, try a few early flowering ones to see which if any can open their buds before the weather turns. And if you can find a source for plants you should have no trouble with the very pretty native Paeonia californica.

  • Vincent E. Summers Said,

    Do older peony varieties suffer as much as newer varieties from blooms falling over?

  • leslie Said,

    Hi Vincent,

    Falling overness knows no vintage; it’s mostly a matter of head weight and stem length. That said, breeders have been working on trying to create peonies with stiffer stems, so there are probably more upright modern ones than old timers.

    A good seller like Klehm or Adelmann can advise you on upright choices if you ask specifically. And I can tell you from much experience that the singles are just about flop free. Beautiful, too, though not as fragrant as the old fashioned bombs …

    Using peony cages or other stem supports can help a lot in the garden; the tighter shape of the bush helps the flowers stay upright.

  • bill burness Said,

    Hi, may i send you a pic of my peony to determine the type? It is at least 60 years old.

    Welcome, Bill,
    and thanks for your confidence in my peony identifying ability. But I’m not anywhere near being an expert at this. You could try asking one or more of the big names in peonies – the staff at nurseries like Klehm, Adelman and Hollingsworth are often very generous with their knowledge – but even they may be reluctant or unable to do an id from a photo.

    Although named peonies are clones, they can still vary quite a bit in color and form depending on climate, sunshine (or lack of same) and other growing conditions. The ideal thing, if it’s still in bloom, would be to go to the American Peony Society and find a chapter in your area. A local peony aficionado who sees your antique in bloom is the one most likely to tell you what it is.

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