The Perfect Flower?
Is the peony the perfect flower?
Widely acknowledged as queen of the spring garden, its blooms are billowy and gracious, fragrant and lush, romantic and so deliciously fleeting. Peonies somehow satisfy and always leave me wanting more. I understand Oscar Wilde was speaking as a person with an addiction (and perhaps I am too), but I declare peonies—not cigarettes—the perfect kind of perfect pleasure!
Given its dramatic beauty alone, the peony should be difficult to grow. It should be particular and fickle and finicky and demanding. Remarkably, it’s none of these. I fell in love fast and hard when I started growing these wonderful plants, and I remain completely besotted today.
I think of peonies as decidedly old-fashioned. That’s partly because they remind me of my grandmother’s garden, but perhaps also because they are, in fact, ancient. The many cultivated varieties we enjoy today—there are some 3,000 kinds of peonies in existence—emanate from a few wild species originally discovered in China almost 2,000 years ago, when various parts of peony plants and flowers came to be valued for their medicinal qualities. The roots of the tree peony were thought to possess strong anticoagulant properties, and the herbaceous peony, which is still used in Traditional Chinese Medicine today, has been praised for a whole host of health-giving benefits. Modern China continues to cherish the peony, holding two annual festivals in its honor and profiting greatly from its production. The city of Heze, one of China’s two major peony centers, reported that its 1996 peony exports totaled $33.7 million.
In Greek mythology, too, the peony is associated with health and well-being. According to Homer, Paeon, the physician of the gods and student of Aesculapius, the god of medicine, had received a Mt. Olympus grown peony from Leto, the mother of Apollo, the god of healing. Paeon used the milk from a peony stem to cure the wounds Pluto sustained in the Trojan War at the hands of Hercules. Aesculapius, jealous of his former student’s glory, plotted to kill Paeon, who was spared when the grateful Pluto transformed him into the beautiful and curative plant whose restorative powers had gained him his reputation.
Both herbaceous and tree peonies found their way to Japan early in the eighth century and had arrived in England by around 1200, when it’s known that Augustinian monks were cultivating them at the monastery at Cirencester. By the fourteenth century, English gardeners were using peonies in their ornamental borders, though they were also still used medicinally. [Europeans valued peonies as a remedy for pregnancy-related ailments and as a tonic to ward off bad dreams, evil spirits, and…gallstones. I like an herbal tea as much as anybody but how about three cheers for modern medicine!?]
The peony’s popularity continued to grow in Europe and Asia, and by the eighteenth century, Philip Miller, Keeper of England’s Chelsea Botanic Garden of the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries, wrote that the peony is “worthy of a place in every good garden.” The nineteenth century saw lots of new varieties, especially coming out of France; peony lovers today owe a great debt of gratitude to early French hybridizers, who made so many improvements and have given the world some of its most beautiful and cherished plants.
American horticulturists were writing of the peony by 1807, when Bernard McMahon listed five types suited to the middle and eastern parts of the U.S. in his American Gardeners’ Chronicle. Twenty-one years later, Roland Green of Boston ranked peonies among the “leading plants” of the day in his Treatise on Ornamental Flowers.
As peonies continued to climb in popularity, they featured prominently in the works of nineteenth century painters. Consider for example:
In 1917, the American gardener, hybridizer, and peony expert Alice Harding wrote that, “The peony is appearing more often, not only in our gardens, but in books. I have read lately of several heroines whose cheeks ‘mantled’ or ‘blushed’ or ‘burned’ like a peony. It always used to be a rose. When a flower once enters into the literature of a people, it may be safely held to be a part of that nation. The fleur-de-lis, the rose, the thistle, the acacia have become national symbols. In a time not far away perhaps the peony will connote America, with a plant in every garden, big and little, and a place in every heart.”
Are we there yet? When I stroll through my neighborhood during the second half of May, I feel certain that if we aren’t there yet we soon will be!
Let’s Grow More Peonies!
The two most basic peony growing habits are herbaceous and tree. Herbaceous peonies are more common—they’re what we envision when we think peony. They’re mounding in habit and they die back to the ground every autumn. Tree peonies are woody and do not die back. The intersectional (Itoh) peony is a somewhat recent development, made by crossing an herbaceous and a tree peony with the hope of capturing the best qualities of each. Itohs have got a mounding habit and die back in fall, but they produce giant flowers, and including these in your garden can extend your total peony bloom time by a couple of weeks.
In terms of flower forms, there are several types, each unique and beautiful. There are also several classification systems. The most intricate is that of the Chinese, who recognize Single, Lotus (semi-double), Chrysanthemum (semi-double), Rose (semi-double), Anemone (double), Hundred Proliferate (double), Golden Circle (double), Thousand Petal Crown (double), and Hydrangea Globular (double) flowers. The American system of identification is a bit simpler. We distinguish between Single, Japanese, Anemone, Semi-Double, Double, and Bomb Double flowers.
We haven’t got to get hung up on the particulars of identification to enjoy the beauty of peonies. So many of us can partake of the peony’s charms because they’re hardy from Zones 3 or 4 to Zone 8, they’re super easy to grow, and, as luck would have it, they can live as long as a hundred years. Don’t you just love that? I love that plants can be passed down from one generation to the next, and the peony is possibly the most perfect example of this.
Here are some planting, growing, and harvesting tips from my notebook:
§ Plant bare root peonies in fall. Plant potted peonies in spring.
§ Fall is best for transplanting and/or dividing peonies. (Keep in mind that they probably don’t need to be divided until they’re at least about 8 years old.) To transplant, just take care to treat the roots very gently as you dig, move, and re-plant. To divide:
o Cut back foliage and carefully use a shovel to lift the root clump.
o Gently rinse off soil.
o Use a sharp (and clean) knife to break apart the roots. You want each root to have at least 3 eyes (they’re little red buds; they’ll be the next year’s flowers!).
o Re-plant with eyes buried about 2 inches deep.
§ To plant peonies: pick a spot that gets full sun. They can survive in shade, but without full sun they become more susceptible to disease.
§ Most peonies prefer neutral to slightly alkaline soils.
§ Of course, excellent drainage is a must. Excessive dampness is one of only a very few things that will destroy a peony.
§ Air flow between plants is also important in maintaining health. Plant peonies about 3 feet apart.
§ Deep planting is a common and a serious mistake. It ensures the shoots don’t get the winter chill they require in order flower. To plant, dig a hole about 3 times as wide as the root and about 18" deep. Mix in plenty of well-rotted manure or other compost, and add a light sprinkling of bone meal. Lie the bare roots down with the eyes facing upward and sort of snuggle them gently into the soil. The eyes should be no more than 2” below the soil surface. In warmer climates, they can be planted even more shallowly.
§ Allow the rain to water your peonies. Water by hand only during droughts. Peonies, like many flowering perennials, prefer deep but infrequent (once or twice weekly) drinks. If you do have to water by hand, do it early in the day, allowing soil to dry before sunset, and water at the base, keeping water off the leaves if you can.
§ Plan on staking your double-flowered herbaceous peonies, and do it early on in spring. They’re heavy-headed and without staking, spring rains plunge their gorgeous angel-wing petals into the mud. Stake individual plants with tomato cages or peony rings. If you’ve got lots of peonies in rows, a corral method can work well.
§ In fall, cut foliage back to the ground and dispose of it. Don’t compost it! Good autumn sanitation helps to prevent disease.
§ If your soil’s good, peonies don’t need much fertilization at all—maybe just a bit of bulb fertilizer and compost when planting and some Neptune’s Harvest and/or more compost when shoots emerge in spring and again in fall once the plants have died back. Some folks also fertilize right after the peonies are finished blooming.
§ Ants have a vital role in your garden and shouldn’t be thought of as pests. They’re attracted to the sweet nectar of your peonies, but they won’t hurt the plants, and growing peonies in your garden will not cause an ant problem in your house. If you harvest at the proper stage (before flowers are fully opened), you can easily remove ants by shaking the stems gently before bringing them inside.
Peonies can stand alone and they can also mix with other flowers to make super enchanting arrangements and bouquets. Follow a few simple harvesting rules of thumb and you’ll be enjoying their beauty all spring!
First, the pros recommend never cutting a young peony. Until their third year, they should be left untouched by the blade. It’s hard to wait, but it will pay off in the long-term.
When to cut? This takes a bit of experience and every cultivar is different, but as a general guideline, you want to harvest when a bud is colored and the green bud leaves have cracked open. When you pinch the bud with your fingers, it should feel a bit squishy, like a marshmallow. If it’s hard, wait.
Remember the Rule of Thirds! Never take more than 1/3 of any plant’s foliage. So, deciding how many flowers you’ll cut will depend on how long you’d like to have their stems. Long-stemmed cuts remove more foliage so you can’t make all long-stemmed cuts (doing so would rob the plant of the means of nourishing itself properly). If you’d like to take all the flowers from a plant it’s best to make long stem cuts first on about half the blooms and then cut the rest of the blooms with short stems so the plant is left with at least 1/3 of its leaves.
Peonies last about a week in the vase, possibly a bit longer if you follow good cut flower practices like removing most foliage, changing water out regularly, and keeping them out of the sun and away from fresh fruits.
If refrigerated properly, peonies can last quite a long time, which is great because their bloom window is so short. To hold them for a few weeks, cut them, remove most foliage, refrigerate them dry on their sides wrapped in newspaper, and re-cut the stems before you rehydrate them. If you’ve got only your kitchen refrigerator, keep your bundles in a plastic bag in the produce drawer—make sure to add a few dry paper towels to soak up moisture.
In my experience, peonies are mostly disease-free—it’s one of their best features! The most common reports of disease regard botrytis blight. A fungus brought on by excessive dampness—often when weather is cool and humid in spring—botrytis gives stems a rotting, water-logged look, and eventually leaves and buds blacken and die. Powdery mildew can also affect peonies, especially during times of warmth and high humidity.
As with all plants and plant diseases, prevention is key. Here’s how you can prevent peony diseases:
§ Select only good plants (buy from reputable peony growers; my favorite source for fall-planted bare roots is Adelman Peonies in Oregon’s Willamette Valley—they’ve got a huge selection and their roots are far superior in quality to any I’ve seen elsewhere. Are these gorgeous or what?).
§ Choose an appropriate planting location (for peonies, that means full sun).
§ Maintain healthy and well-draining soil.
§ Allow for good air circulation around and between the plants.
§ Remove diseased plants or diseased parts of plants right away. Don’t compost this material! Destroy it!
§ Remember to disinfect pruners and snips so as not to spread disease to healthy plants.
For more on these exceptional plants, see:
Alice Harding’s The Peony (1917)
Alice Harding’s Peonies in the Little Garden (1923)
Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Peonies: The Imperial Flower (1999)
The American Peony Society at http://www.americanpeonysociety.org/