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Peonies have been stars in gardens throughout the world for centuries. They are prized for their variety in bloom color, fragrance, and composition.
Peonies also have a place in the realm of medicine dating back to ancient Chinese remedies. For simplicity’s sake, Peonies can be divided into herbaceous (the foliage dies back every fall) and tree peonies (woody stems persist in the winter).
We will not discuss the intermediates (fabulous hybrids between herbaceous and tree peonies). Herbaceous peonies predominantly originate from P. lactiflora and P. officinalis crosses. There are hundreds of varieties with bloom colors ranging through white, pink, lavender, coral and red.
Some varieties simply smell like pollen where others have distinct perfumes. The flower composition can be single (one layer of petals around the central anthers and pistils), semi-double (a single layer of large petals with smaller modified petals around the center) or double (many layers of petals, the center is not visible).
The flowering period typically lasts for 2-3 weeks in April and May. They are wonderful cut flowers. They are best cut before they fully open so you can watch them unfurl. Also, partially opened flowers hold their color and dry well when hung upside down. Unfortunately the delicate petals will shatter if a hard rain falls when they are in full bloom.
Tree peonies are their own exotic realm. They are always a prized jewel in the garden. Tree peonies include many separate species. P. delavayi, P.ludlowii and P. suffruticosa are the most commonly found at Portland Nursery.
Typically tree peonies bloom before herbaceous peonies in early spring. You may need to cover your tree peony in March to protect the buds from hard frosts. And those flowers are worth the effort. They have a much wider range of colors including yellow, orange and even green shades added to the mix of colors mentioned for herbaceous peonies. Their flowers are composed of the most exquisite crape paper textured petals that are often blotched or flamed in the center.
Culitvars of P. suffruticosa have very large flowers up to 12” across. Also, their blooms open and close with the day. Each flower can last up to 4-5 days. Tree peonies can have a longer bloom period than herbaceous peonies because of their sheer volume. In some species such as P. delavayi, the flowers give way to fantastic seed pods that hold through the summer.
Once the blooms have gone, both herbaceous and tree peonies continue to shine with their bold foliage. The show truly begins when you see the first signs of the red or bronze foliage stalks of herbaceous peonies emerging from the ground in early spring. These stalks unfurl into rich green, deeply toothed leaves. Tree peonies often have a bluish cast to their leaves. This combined with the size and toothed texture give them almost a tropical look in the garden. In the fall, peony foliage can turn red, orange or yellow depending on the variety.
Below are some of our favorite Peonies commonly found at the nursery. We have the best selection in April and May.
Paeonia delaveyi- 2-3” nodding fragrant flowers are a rich maroon color. Large dark gren leaves are deply cut with blue undersides. Fabulous red tipped seed pods persist through the summer. Blooms May-June. Grows 32-36” high and wide. Hardy to zones 6-8.
Paeonia lutea var. ludlowii- Elegant lemon yellow flowers are 2-3” across and bloom May-June. Distinctive lacey foliage is light green. Huge seed pods. Grows 4-8’ high and wide. Hardy to zones 6-9.
Paeonia ‘Buckeye Belle’- Semi-double dark maroon flowers with crinkled petals. 24-28” high. An early bloomer with strong stems good for cutting.
Paeonia ‘Barrington Belle’- Deep red purple double flowers. Large outer petals with red or pink staminoids around the center. Mid season. Sturdy stems 33” high, free flowering, good for cutting.
Paeonia ‘Eden’s Perfume’- Very fragrant double dark pink flowers. Reputed to be one of the most fragrant peonies with a rose like fragrance. Strong stems 24” high, good for cutting.
Paeonia ‘Lotus Queen’- A stunning pure white single peony. A classy Japanese cultivar with a light fragrance. 30” high, strong stems good for cutting.
Paeonia ‘Sorbet’- Fluffy double pastel pink flowers. Stems 28” tall and sturdy, good for cutting.
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Genus: Paeonia (PAY oh nee uh)
Common name(s): Peony
Origin: Around 33 species native to the Northern Hemisphere’s temperate areas.
Culture: Peonies grow in full to partial sun. They need at least 4 hours of direct sun to bloom. Full sun will cause the flowers to fade faster. They prefer well drained richly amended soil. The eyes of deciduous peonies should be no deeper than 2" below the soil surface. Please see link for tree peony culture.
Pests & Diseases: Peonies are subject to root rot, gray mold and wilt. Tree peony buds may fall victim to frost without protection. Peonies are prone to slugs, root weevil and aphids.
If you have ever grown a peony you may have noticed ants all over the buds. They are friends rather than foes. The ants actually harvest the sweet ‘glue’ that holds the buds closed. In essence, the ants help the flowers to open.
Peony wilt is a common fungal disease that appears as wilted, withered stems that turn brown. In prolonged wet weather the fungus will turn to a gray mold. In this case, cut off the affected stems and treat with a fungicide. Peonies can also fall victim to root rot if they are planted in poorly drained soil, or if the soil is prepared while it is too wet.
Maintenance: Peony flowers are quite heavy and the plants benefit from staking. You can also place peony cages around the plants before they get too large. If you mulch your garden annually you may need to lift your peonies so they are no deeper than 2" below the soil level. For herbaceous peonies, cut the foliage to the ground when fully dormant in late fall through early winter to reduce fungal infection.
Propagation: Divisions in fall only.