In gardening, and in life, it’s nice to find things you can count on. In the plant world, peonies rank at the top of the list. Prized for their form, stunning range of colors, and exceptional hardiness, few other plants once established bloom so reliably year after year with such little care. Their large, glorious flowers add bright splashes of color to beds and borders and their intoxicating fragrance make them a wonderful cut flower. Peonies are a great value, providing you with years of beautiful returns.
America’s love affair with peonies has been a long and successful one. I have fond memories of rows of pink and white peonies blooming in my Grandmother Smith’s garden. In many parts of the country peonies open near the end of May, a characteristic that makes them the flower of choice for Memorial Day decorations. Through the years plant breeders have developed a spectacular array of new colors, flower forms, and blooming times to give gardeners even more selection. Today you can enjoy nearly 6 weeks of continuous bloom by planting early, mid and late season varieties. Hybridizers have also developed peonies with stronger stems to hold aloft the plant’s large, heavy blooms. And they have developed hardy new varieties for gardeners in the north and south, expanding the range of the plant’s popularity.
Peony Design Tips
In my grandparent’s day, peonies were often planted in rows or set out as islands of flowers encircled by the lawn. I prefer to mix them with other plants in flower borders such as shrub roses, foxglove, iris, daylilies, phlox, perennial geranium and lamb’s ear. Since peonies don’t like to be moved once they’re established, it’s best to plant them in permanent spots with other hardy perennials. As their blooms fade, the plant’s rich green foliage mixes well with other perennials and also makes an attractive background for shorter annuals. I often plant peonies amid spring flowering bulbs such as daffodils or tulips. After the bulbs bloom, the emerging peony foliage helps camouflage the bulbs? fading leaves.
The Right Peony for You
Mid May to early June is prime time to enjoy these splendid flowers. There are two types of peonies grown in the home landscape, the garden or herbaceous peony that grows 2 to 3 feet tall, and the tree peony that is 4 to 6 feet in height. Although fall is the time to plant peonies, now is the time to pick your favorites, so you can select the right color and variety for your garden. Take a picture or record the name of the ones you like the best. You can place an order with a mail order company this spring and then they will ship the tubers in the fall when the time is right to plant them in your area. You can also wait and buy plants this fall from your local garden center. If you don’t have a garden take heart, you can still enjoy peonies as cut flowers in flower arrangements. Whatever you choose, I’m sure you’ll find as I have that it is easy to fall under the spell of their amazing beauty.
Planting Depth is Important
One of my biggest attractions to the peony is its long life. I’ve heard of peonies outliving the gardeners who planted them – surviving nearly 50 years! But the key to longevity is how they are planted. Plant the bare root tubers in the fall just as the autumn leaves begin to turn. Choose a well-drained site in full sun, although light shade will keep some darker colors from fading. Prepare the soil before planting by adding well-rotted manure, compost and bone meal as needed. The number one rule is not to plant too deep. Make sure the ‘eyes’ on the tubers are pointing up and are covered with only about 2 inches of soil. A little less deep in warmer climates is fine. Trust me, if you plant them too deep, you will have foliage, but no flowers. Take into account their mature size when planting them so they aren’t crowded and mulch the area in early winter to avoid frost-heaving of the tubers. It usually takes two years after planting before any flowers are produced. Support is often required for the tall, double flower hybrids.
Peonies for the South
If you live in the deep South, keep in mind that peonies do need cool temperatures to really thrive. But I always love to defy the nay sayers who insist “you can’t grow that here!” That’s exactly what I did when I designed a garden in Southwest Georgia. I convinced the family to plant two varieties that I have had much success with: ‘Festiva Maxima’, and ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ (see Varieties of Peonies). To my critics’ amazement, and envy I might add, the peonies bloomed profusely. Look for new varieties bred to thrive in warmer areas.
What About Ants on Peonies?
Ants are attracted to the sweet sap produced by the peony bud. This is no cause for alarm. The ants are not harmful. Just leave them alone, and once the flowers bloom, they’ll move on.
Beautiful Varieties of Peonies
Here is just a sampling of the hundreds of peony varieties available. Peonies are often described according to color, height, and flower forms: single, semi-double, double, bomb and Japanese. Check local nursery centers in your area to see which varieties are best suited for your garden.
FESTIVA MAXIMA – Developed in 1851, this fragrant, early blooming, 24 to 30 inch peony is an old-fashioned favorite. Strong stems provide good support for the large white double flowers with crimson markings. Zones 2 – 7 or 8
REINE HORTENSE – Another old-fashioned beauty introduced in 1857, this fragrant peony features large, double flowers that bloom in midseason. Flowers are rose pink in color with fluffy petals that are notched and silvered at the tips. The plant’s strong stems and deep green foliage make it a standout in the flower border. Zones 3 – 8
GARDENIA – Large (8 to 10 inch) blush-white gardenia shaped flowers bloom on strong 34 inch long stems. This is an early to midseason bloomer with a sweet fragrance. Zones 3 – 8
AURORA SUNRISE – The clear, bright pink Japanese style flower of this peony is highlighted with a tightly packed golden center. A 30 inch variety, it was developed for good stem strength and a striking presence in the garden. Zones 2 – 8
CORAL SUPREME – This gorgeous, 36 inch semi-double peony has stunning salmon-coral blossoms that open early in the season. The plant has unique cup shaped flowers that reflect nearly 3 decades of breeding to perfect. Zones 2 – 8
PETTICOAT FLOUNCE – This peony lives up to its name with superb soft pink ?bomb? shaped blossoms touched in creamy white and edged with tinges of red. An excellent cut flower with luxurious, deep green foliage growing to 24′, it blooms early in the season, just in time to enjoy its gorgeous fresh cut flowers in an arrangement. Zones 2 – 8
HESPERUS – A tree peony growing 3 to 5 feet that blooms in midseason with single dusty rose flowers with yellow undertones and deep rose veins. The flowers sport crinkled petals that are notched with purple inner flares and fine, golden stamens. Zones 4 – 8
HIGHLIGHT – This peony helps extend your flower show by blooming late midseason with large double flowers in dark red. A beautiful cut flower, its rich color adds depth and drama to a bed or border growing to 34 inches. Zones 3 – 8
RED EMPEROR – Very large, Japanese type flowers in bright red with full pale centers make a striking display blooming in midseason. The intense color fades, but makes this showy flower even more interesting. Grows to 30 inches. Zones 3 – 8
SEA SHELL – One of the best peonies for the south, this Gold Medal Winner is the center of attraction in any garden. The lively pink single flower has a bright center of yellow stamens. Flowering in midseason, this 36′ peony holds its blooms high on strong stems. Zones 3 – 8
SARAH BERNHARDT – Nearly a century has passed since this peony was introduced in 1906, but it is still a popular favorite. A double flower in dark rose-pink with petals edged in a slightly lighter color makes this fragrant, mid to late season bloomer the star attraction. Zones 3 – 8
Good to Know: Peony Arranging Tips
- Select half opened blooms, they’ll last longer.
- Cut the flowers early in the morning.
- If the heads are heavy with dew, gently shake to remove water.
- Handfuls of peonies in a vase make a beautiful arrangement.
- Remove foliage below water line to prevent bacteria build up
- Keep flowers away from heat and direct light.