Peonies are the Pinnacle of the perennial plant world. What other plant has all the options loaded in one package?
Very hardy, easy to grow, magnificent in bloom with rich, glossy foliage, no pruning required, and best of all, disappearing entirely out of your way in the winter? By the way, peonies can live for decades.
Here are 4 of the most popular peony species:
1. GARDEN PEONY (PAEONIA LACTIFOLIA)
Garden peonies are the most popular peony grown for the home gardener. Many hybrid varieties have been developed for thousands of years, dating back to ancient China and Tibet, as well as new cultivars being introduced yearly.
All are herbaceous plants which means they are comprised of leafy stems that die back to the ground in winter.
Most Garden peonies grow to an average height of between two to three feet per variety and are nearly as wide.
In early spring, the new foliage emerges from the ground with an attractive maroon hue and begins to firm up as the days get warmer.
Most varieties bloom only after being well-established in an area and are best left alone and not disturbed for several years.
Flower form may vary per type, but most gardeners prefer double or semi-double varieties.
Peonies make excellent cut flowers, often lasting several weeks in a vase.
The best time to cut peonies is just as they begin to show their color. In early spring, some daring gardeners may remove all but the single topmost flower bud on a stem to achieve the largest possible bloom. This form of disbudding can yield extra large-size flowers.
THE CHINESE TREE PEONY (Paeonia suffruticosa)
The Chinese Tree peony bears large fragrant blooms up to 10 inches across in April.
Tree peonies are not actual trees but woody shrubs growing four to eight feet tall with a semi-climbing habit best grown along a fence or trellis in a protected, partially sunny location.
They grow differently than the Garden peony as they do not die back to the ground entirely in winter. As exotic as they appear, the tree peony, or Moutan as it is called in China, is relatively easy to grow if planted with loose, well-drained organic-rich soil and given plenty of moisture when growing.
They require support as the flowers can get quite heavy when blooming. Feed after blooming with a high-phosphor fertilizer or bone meal. Tree peonies are slow growers and a cherished long-lived garden addition.
Tree peonies come in many shades of colors as single, semi-double and double-flowering varieties. The Tree peony was chosen as the national flower of China in 1994.
Most modern varieties are grafted onto the Garden peony rootstocks.
FERN LEAF PEONY (Paeonia tenufolia)
An attractive and collectible form of a natural peony, The Fern Leaf peony is mainly prized for its lacey delicate fern foliage, which distinguishes it from other peonies.
It is a small plant, most often growing only 18 inches tall. It bears small but intense red blooms in April as either single or double forms.
The Fern peony is not difficult to grow and prefers a similar environment to most peonies. It is slow to bloom, often taking three to four years to start setting buds from a division.
TIBETAN TREE PEONY(Paeonia Lutea Ludlowii)
Very similar in appearance to the Chinese tree peony, Lutea is a woody stemmed shrub suitable for growing along a fence or trellis. It has sizeable fern-like foliage and bears bright yellow blooms in May. It is very hardy and easy to maintain. It can grow from four to six feet tall.
CARING FOR YOUR PEONIES
The best part of peonies is that they require very little care once the proper location has been selected, and periodic watering and feeding are done throughout the growing season.
For existing plants in early spring, clean any leftover leaves away from your peonies before they emerge from the ground. Be careful when cultivating the soil around your peonies, as they dislike disturbing the root zone. Usually, a fresh layer of mulch around the base of the plants is all that is required.
Peonies, on the whole, prefer a sunny to a partially sunny location and are away from excessive heat. Give them plenty of room from your other plants, as peonies can’t compete with more aggressive perennials and shrubs for space. Good air movement around the plant is always beneficial.
Peonies prefer a slightly alkaline soil so always incorporate a small amount of lime (two cups of dolomite per plant) each year, especially if using compost, peat, or manure around your plants.
Few insects bother peonies other than the odd errant slug or two, and if you notice an occasional ant climbing on your peony, it may be only that it is attracted to the sweet, sticky flower bud that may be ready to open. Some experts believe that the ants help the peony to bloom sooner by removing the sugary sap.
It is well known that botrytis blight, leaf blotch, both fungi can sometimes be a problem with peonies, especially in warm and wet springs.
Botrytis blight can be seen as a blackening or wilting of the foliage in spring and is caused by the infection of damaged tissue in a warm, humid environment.
Most often, the plant tissue is damaged from freezing nights and warm wet sunny days in early spring.
Treat this problem by cutting the damaged stems out immediately and keeping your plants well-watered and fertilized.
Leaf blotch is seen as reddish-black dots on the foliage and is caused by excessively wet conditions in warm weather. In this case, improve the soil drainage around your peonies and sprinkle organic garden sulfur or a copper-based fungicide in early spring as the new growth emerges.
Feed your peonies in the spring and summer with an organic-based all-purpose fertilizer. I usually add an extra helping of bone meal in the spring as the added phosphorus helps with the strengthening of the root structure of the peony through the season.