By Tony Minstretta
Peonies are one of the best perennial choices for a garden. The reason is simple: Peonies are hardy and extremely reliable. Once established these beauties are durable and low maintenance. Another admirable aspect of peonies is that, unlike some other perennials, the do not ramble. They come back reliably year after year with little care and produce huge flowers — even enough blooms for cut-flower bouquets.
Peonies became popular in Europe in the 1780s after they were introduced from China and Japan, where they had been grown for thousands of years. In the 1800s peonies graced the gardens of Empress Josephine Bonaparte and Thomas Jefferson, who included notations about peonies in his writings. Some of those varieties from the 1800s include ‘Mons Jules Elie’, ‘Festiva Maxima’, ‘Felix Crousse’ and ‘Karl Rosenfield’. These were the first peonies used in the cut flower trade in the 1900s. They are also found in some of the oldest cemeteries and homesteads in the United States.
Throughout history, peonies have enjoyed immense popularity, especially in the United States, when a resurgence of interest spurred the breeding and introductions of new cultivars. Peony pioneers of the early 1900s worth mentioning are Gilbert Wild, Edward Auten, Orville Fay, Myron Bigger, William Bockstoce, Oliver Brand, Lyman Cousins, William Krekler and Charles Klehm. Most of these breeders started out as hobbyists. These and other American breeders opened the door for an explosion of remarkable new peony varieties.
The New Breeders
Don Hollingsworth of Hollingsworth Peonies in Maryville, Mo., introduced ‘Garden Treasure’ a yellow intersectional peony. Roy Klehm, who with his wife Sarah own and operate Klehm’s Song Sparrow Farm in Southern Wisconsin, continues his family’s tradition of introducing new varieties. There are many more breeders today who are constantly hybridizing and ensuring a succession of new introductions. Most of these breeders and propagators have websites—peony enthusiasts can find and order new, beautiful peonies from around the country.
The newest innovation is the crossing of herbaceous and tree peonies. It was achieved by Japanese breeder Toichi Itoh. This breeding breakthrough opened the door for a new generation of peonies with exceptional form and color. I should mention that thousands of crosses are necessary to produce a new peony of superb quality. These herbaceous-tree peony crosses are referred to as Itoh hybrids or intersectional hybrids, and they include ‘May Lilac’, ‘Bartzella’, ‘Scarlet Heaven’, ‘Garden Treasure’ and ‘First Arrival’.
The different varieties of peonies available range from single peonies with their small center of stamens with one or two rows of petals like ‘Squirt’ or the Japanese varieties like ‘Beautiful Senorita’ whose center of stamens are larger, to doubles with huge fluffy blooms like ‘Candy Hearts’ or bomb types that have a tall, full center of petals. All of these are referred to as “herbaceous peonies” and all of their foliage is removed in late summer to fall.
Tree peonies are quite beautiful, and their care is a little different. They enjoy early day sun and shady afternoons. Their blooms are usually very large, and they have a wide range of colors and styles. A good example is ‘Guardian of the Monastery’. Tree peonies have woody stems and must not be cut down. Let foliage fall off on its own. Tree peonies can reach 5 to 6 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide. They make quite a statement in the shady-with-morning-sun garden.
As Cut Flowers
Traditionally peonies are remembered as the cut flowers taken to cemeteries in remembrance of loved ones. Today’s brides also realize the beauty of peonies for their bouquets and table decorations. And an increasing number of gardeners simply enjoy bringing cut peony flowers indoors.
Peonies should be cut when their buds are showing color and are soft. They then can be put into vases, and some can be put in the refrigerator for later use. This will extend the cut peony season for several weeks.
Another tradition is dividing peonies from a grandparent’s or parent’s family home. It is important to dig peonies in one clump. This can be achieved by inserting the shovel 8 to 10 inches deep at an angle toward the center of the plant. This will ensure an entire clump will be removed at once, rather than breaking apart. After lifting the clump from its hole, the soil around the roots should be removed with a blunt stick. Then wash the roots with a strong stream of water.
If there is not a natural division within the clump, insert a sharp knife to cut it apart. Keep in mind that each division should have sufficient roots for each four- to six-eye division in order for the roots to re-establish faster.
How to Plant a Peony
When planting a new peony or replanting a division, keep these tips in mind. Choose a site that receives at least a half day of sun and has well-drained soil. If your site has heavy clay soil, amend the soil —mix 50 percent of the soil with 50 percent compost. Dig the planting hole deep and wide enough to accommodate your peony division with room to spare on the sides. Create a mound in the center of the hole with amended soil. Place the division (or new plant) so that the eyes of the root are 1 ½ to 2 inches below ground. Press soil between the roots then backfill the hole and water thoroughly. Fertilize in the spring with a balanced fertilizer of 10-10-10 or 10-20-10, keeping the nitrogen number at a lower ratio than the phosphorous and potassium. Throughout the year, water the plant when soil is dry. Once established, peonies rarely need supplemental water.
If you are planning a new perennial garden or are revamping an existing one, consider adding peonies for years of enjoyment. The possibilities are endless.