This year there were a lot of peonies, including a woodland peony, for sale at the Bridge of Flowers Plant Sale. This is a testament to the health of the peonies on the Bridge and in our gardens. They thrive and eventually have to be divided.
In the olden days, peonies were cut back and divided in the fall then replanted into a sleepy autumn garden. Nurseries sold peony roots in the fall and gardeners spent the winter dreaming of those shoots poking up early in the spring.
Nowadays no one hesitates to divide peonies in the spring, and nurseries sell potted well budded peonies. Instead of dreaming of spring shoots, gardeners can plant their new peonies and wait a very short time for the bloom period to begin.
I can understand the desire to have two peony planting seasons. They are beautiful and glamorous, coming in a variety of colors including white, pink, red, and some less common shades of coral and yellow. In Heath I had a very unusual peony called Green Lotus that had raggedy white petals tinged with green around a golden center. It did not bloom for very long each season, but I just loved its unusual color and form.
Peonies do come in many types and forms. Most of us are familiar with herbaceous peonies, peonies that need to be cut back to the ground in the fall. Herbaceous peonies can be single, semi-double like Coral Charm, or double like Kansas. The fully double peony with hundreds of ruffly petals hiding all signs of stamens is probably what most of us think of when we hear the word peony. A kind of double double is the bomb form which has the double grouping of petals in the center set on a ring of guard petals.
There is also the Japanese or Imperial form which has a few petals surrounding a large central cluster of stamens that have been transformed into stamenoids looking like a dense center fringe, usually gold. Gold Standard is an example. The anemone form is very similar and is sometimes considered a variety of Japanese peony only with petaloids of the same color instead of staminoids in the center. Show Girl is a striking example.
Woodland peonies are a subset of the general herbaceous class. Woodland peonies are shorter and have finer foliage, blooming early in the season. They have a simple form, but they provide an extra wonder in the fall when the seed pod bursts open to reveal cobalt blue and scarlet seeds.
Each peony will bloom for a couple of weeks, but there are early, mid- and late season varieties so you can enjoy peonies for six weeks. Many of them have notable fragrance.
I also grew two tree peonies. Guan Yin Mian was a lush shade of pink and she was named for the Goddess of Compassion. The other, also pink, lost its name in my record books, never to be revealed again. Tree peonies do not grow into tall trees, but into large sturdy shrubs. They do not get cut back in the fall. The woody infrastructure of a mature plant can hold dozens of large blossoms. These fragile looking peonies are actually extremely hardy and bloom before the herbaceous peonies.
There are cities in China where tree peonies were born that celebrate peony season with festivities. Closer to home is the CricketHillGarden in Thomaston, Connecticut which has its own Peony Festival from May 12 through June 21. The gardens are open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am – 5 pm. No admission is charged. You can go simply to admire the range of peony beauty, but I cannot imagine anyone resisting a purchase. Peonies, fruit trees and berry bushes will be on sale.
The newest variety of peonies are the Itoh peonies, also called intersectionals. Toichi Itoh, a Japanese nurseryman, was the first to cross the tree peony with the herbaceous peony. Now there are American hybrids which hold their blossoms high without supports. Although the stems are strong they do get cut down in the fall, returning bigger and more floriferous the following spring. Bartzella, a yummy yellow, was an early variety and became very popular, but there are others in shades of lavender, pink, coral and red.
Itoh peonies are mid-season to late bloomers. Like all peonies the foliage stays green and healthy all summer.
Peonies are one of the longest lived and most carefree plants in the perennial garden. They all need full sun, and good, well draining soil with a pH of 6.5 or 7. If you buy peony roots in the fall the herbaceous and Itoh peonies should be planted two inches deep. A deeper planting will not harm the plant, but it will not make blooms. If you have a non-blooming peony, dig it up and give it a shallower planting hole. That should take care of the problem.
Tree peonies do need to be planted more deeply. About five inches of soil should cover the root. Also, if you are planting tree peonies think carefully about the site. They need sun but also need to be protected from strong winds.
Peonies should be watered and mulched the first year, but that is all the special care they will need. After that, you and your children can enjoy them for decades.
Between the Rows May 21, 2016