By Marilyn Homewood, Master Gardener
Summer solstice has just passed and with it the waning of some iconic garden varieties. Late spring/early summer brings us not only the iris and rose but the peony as well. Peonies are large, long-lived perennials that may stay in one place without division for up to 100 years. Peonies bloom in a wide range of forms, from simple, elegant singles to massive doubles with more than 300 petals in colours of white, pink, yellow and red tones. They form a rounded shrub that may be up to 3 feet in height and width with glossy deep green foliage that remains attractive after the bloom is over.
There are three types of peonies: Herbaceous, Tree and Itoh. Herbaceous peonies bloom in late spring/early summer and have stems that die back to the ground in the fall. Tree peonies have a permanent woody stem, more like a shrub. Woody stalks remain standing through winter and go on to flower again the next season. The blooms on trees peonies are larger and more fleeting than those on their herbaceous counterparts. In our area, tree peonies appreciate a sheltered spot to grow as a hard winter may result in a lot of die back. The third type of peonies are the Itoh peonies. These plants are a result of crossing herbaceous peonies with tree peonies. The stems of Itoh peonies die back to the ground each fall and yet the bloom is large like that of a tree peony. These plants do not require any additional support unlike some of the herbaceous peonies.
Peonies perform best when planted in a location with a minimum of 6 hours of sun per day and must have fertile, well drained soil. Once planted in a suitable location, they are relatively care free, requiring only a good clean up in the fall to cut the stems down and remove all leaves (reducing the potential for fungal growth). In the case of tree peonies, the stems are not cut but all leaves should be removed and discarded in the landfill.
Peonies are sold as bare roots from growers as well as from some of the larger companies. These can be planted in either spring or fall however from experience fall is the preferred time to get them into the ground. As well, many nurseries sell peonies in containers that can be added to the garden at any time provided they are kept watered.
Recognizing the value of a peony variety that performs well in the landscape, the American Peony Society developed an Award of Landscape Merit for cultivars that do not require support and are vigorous garden varieties. When choosing a peony for your garden, consider one of these.
Peonies are not just for the garden. They make wonderful cut flowers as well. For maximum vase life, harvest them when the bud is coloured, rounded and soft to the touch, keep the vase out of direct sunlight and change the water frequently (peonies like cold water and I have started to add some ice cubes to the water in the morning). This should give you 6-7 days of vase life. The blooms are so large that it only takes a few to fill up your vase.
Treat yourself and purchase a peony for your garden. One can never have enough peonies!
“Flowers are the music of the ground. From earth’s lips spoken without sound.” – Edwin Curran