Peonies – Princes of the Spring Garden

The spring garden is home to a host of magnificent blossoms, but few more coveted or spectacular than Peonies. Beloved of painters and florists, as well as butterflies and bees, there are hundreds of different color and petal forms sure to satisfy the pickiest of gardeners.

The most common garden peony, Paeonia lactiflora, is native to Asia. It was introduced to Europe in the late 1700s, and comes in a wide range of colors, from pure white to deepest, darkest pink, and either single-flowered or double-flowered varieties. Peonies do best in full sun, but can take some light shade in the afternoons, and greatly benefit from a soil rich in organic matter. It is important to not plant them either too shallowly or too deeply, as they will not bloom if they are too deep, and will have very weak stems and tend to fall over if they are too shallow. Garden peonies are herbaceous perennials, and should be cut back to the ground in the fall, after they have dropped their leaves.

Tree peonies, P. suffruticosa, are one of the most impressive plants one can have in a garden. They can reach anywhere from three to five feet tall, and are covered in enormous, luncheon-plate sized blossoms in late May. They come in the same range of colors as the garden peony, as well as yellow, orange, deep purple, and striped varieties. Sunshine and soil requirements are the same, but these should not be cut back in the winter, and should be planted in an area that is sheltered from high winter winds. Tree peonies are a bit more sensitive to our colder winters, and should be protected. Generally they do not get as tall as five feet, but make up for it with their amazing blossoms. One thing to watch out for with tree peonies are sucker shoots coming up from the roots; most tree peonies are grafted onto herbaceous peony stock, and occasionally this root stock will break dormancy and start to grow. These suckers should be immediately trimmed off, or the enthusiastic herbaceous root will outgrow the more desirable tree peony.

There are new varieties of peony within the last couple of years that are actually hybrids between the herbaceous and tree peonies, called ‘Intersectional’ or ‘Itoh’ Peonies. These have the enormous flowers and strong stems of tree peonies, but the habit of the herbaceous. They are still fairly rare in commerce, and are quite expensive, but are worth the investment if found.

There is a belief that ants are a very important part of growing all types of peony, though the jury is still out on whether or not they are “required” for them to bloom. Peony buds secrete a very sticky, sweet nectar, which attracts ants, which then chew along the edges of the bud, loosening the waxy coating, allowing the bud to open. Peonies that have the ants ‘helping’ with the buds tend to bloom all at once, whereas plants that have been treated for insects tend to bloom more sporadically. The bottom line is that ants will not harm your plants, nor will having peonies around attract more than the usual number of critters to your garden. Just dunk any cut flowers in cold water for a minute or two and swish the petals around to rid your blossoms of any hitchhikers before bringing them in the house.

The best time to divide peonies is in the fall, after the plant has gone mostly dormant. To have a nice-sized plant the following spring, it is best to leave at least three eyespots on each root section. They should be replanted at the same depth as they were before, and given a nice drink of water, and will reward the patient gardener with beautiful blossoms the following spring!