I walked through the garden with my Sunday morning coffee amazed and delighted to see that the fat pink buds of my Guan Yin Mian tree peony had opened.
Guan Yin is the name of the Bodhisattva (or goddess) of Compassion. The term bodhisattva is not much used in the west. It means those who have chosen to remain in the world even though they have enough merit to reach nirvana. Guan Yin is almost always shown with a little bottle containing the dew of compassion, sprinkling it upon those in need – which is all of us at one time or another. She has other magic tools as well including a brush to brush away all our mental distractions and a pill that will cure just about anything.
I planted Guan Yin Mian, Guan Yin’s Face, about five years ago. The journal that contains the date is currently misplaced. It seems perfectly apt that this flower with its silken pink petals surrounding a golden crown protecting a crimson heart should be seen to resemble the face of the bodhisattva of compassion.
Tree peonies are native to China where they have grown for three thousand years. Unlike herbaceous or garden peonies which most of us are familiar with, tree peonies do not die down to the ground each year. They are more like a small shrub and can grow to five feet tall with a wide spread and carry dozens of gorgeous fragile looking blooms while herbaceous peonies are still in tight bud.
Although they look fragile, tree peonies, and other peonies, are very tough and survive our Massachusetts winters with little trouble.
It was after our time in China that I became aware of tree peonies, but because they are more expensive it took me a while to acquire four. I have lost the names of two, but there is Guan Yin Mian and her neighboring pink Japanese sister, Shou Hong, a red, and a white. Nowadays tree peonies will often cost between $50 to $100.
Aside from blooming earlier and so much more extravagantly when they are mature, an important difference between tree peonies and other garden peonies is that they need to be planted more deeply. The roots should be four inches below the soil surface. The main reason people complain about non-blooming peonies is because they are planted too deeply. Garden peonies must be planted no more than an inch or so below the surface if they are to bloom.
Many of my garden peonies are the type I remember from my grandmother’s garden in Vermont. Raspberry Sundae is typical of the big fragrant double pink blooms that reminded me of ballerina tutus when I was a child.
One drawback of those old varieties is that the blossoms are very heavy, especially in the rain, and the stems are not terribly strong. There are now new hybrids that don’t bloom as heavily, but the stems are stronger so they don’t need staking.
Coral Charm is the name of one of these new hybrids. It has a beautiful sunny coral color which would never have been possible in the 1940s. It received the American Peony Society Gold Medal in 1986. The only thing it lacks is fragrance.
Nowadays these garden peonies come in a wide range of colors from creamy whites, to pinks, reds, and even a few yellow like Prairie Moon which has soft yellow petals surrounding a circle of golden petaloides.
A more recent development in peonies is the crossing of a garden peony with a tree peony by Mr. Toichi Itoh in 1948. These Intersectional peonies, often called Itoh peonies, die back like garden peonies but they have the attractive leaf form of the tree peony and have a wider range of colors like shades of yellow, peach and coral. They are also shorter than tree peonies. Bartzella, a popular Itoh peony, is between three and four feet tall with fragrant semi-double yellow flowers. Bartzella costs about $100 because this type of peony is still in such short supply. Others can cost more.
In the olden days (25 years ago when I planted my first peony) it was extremely rare to see peonies of any sort offered for sale in the spring. Fall is the traditional time for dividing and planting peonies.
Now I see potted peonies for sale at most nurseries, but they are not always marked with much information beyond color. A quick trip through a peony nursery catalog or website will show you how inadequate this is.
The peony family is large, with a variety of size, small and tall, of form from the elegant singles to lush bombs, and color from creamy whites, luminous pale pinks to rich reds, and blooming seasons from May into July. There are varieties like tall white Festiva Maxima that has been around for 150 years costing $16 and Hillary, a new semi-double pink Intersectional for $150.
I have a peony bed with about 30 garden peonies, many of which will still be in bloom at the Annual Rose Viewing on June 28, but I have begun a wish list of other peonies. Where will I plant them? I’m not sure, but I know by fall planting season I will have figured it out.
As a former librarian and plant lover I want to remind everyone about the plant sale at the Tilton Library in South Deerfield today, May 30 from 9am to noon. Help your garden; help the library.
May 30, 2009