As my first Mother’s Day in this area approached, I was amazed by the fabulous bouquets families were bringing to cheer up hospitalized loved ones. The bouquet bearers found it odd that this nurse was unfamiliar with peonies, but I had never seen these fragrant beauties before.
(Photo: Festiva Maxima)
Named for Paeon, a student of Asclepias who became physician to the gods, peonies are native to the temperate zone of the northern hemisphere. The genus has over 30 species. Many are European natives. Two are native to western North America. Our garden variety peonies come from Asia where they are regarded as symbols of good fortune and happy marriage. Because they remain an important component of Chinese herbal medicine, some species are no longer found in the wild. Most that we plant in our gardens are hybrids of three species.
Herbaceous peonies are native to China where they have been hybridized for over a thousand years. They are long-lived, low-maintenance perennials that live in harmony with their garden neighbors. Quite cold hardy, they require at least 400 hours of near freezing temperatures to thrive. We live in the southern limit of their range.
(Photos, in order, peony Coral Charm newly opened, two days later, and aging.)
Itoh or intersectional peonies bloom a month later than their herbaceous cousins. These Japanese natives are more compact and will grow where winters a bit are milder. The flowers have a broader color range including yellow. Many newer peony cultivars are hybrids of these two types.
Tree peonies, as the name implies, have a woody stem. They are very slow-growing sub-shrubs. Here they might reach five or six feet in a decade. They require fewer chill hours to thrive, some needing only 100 hours of near-freezing temperatures. Their appeal lies in the enormous flowers which are produced two or three weeks earlier than those of herbaceous peonies. In China, they are called “moutan” meaning most beautiful and considered the king of flowers.
All peonies are long-lived, undemanding perennials. They need full sun and excellent drainage. Plant the bare-root divisions one half inch deep. They like slightly alkaline soil, so adding a handful of lime may be beneficial. They are not heavy feeders, so an annual top dressing of compost is a gracious plenty.
Peonies planted in autumn will bloom the following spring. Spring-planted peonies will not bloom for two years. They are deer and rabbit proof but are subject to botrytis, a fungal disease. Good air circulation will deter the fungus. Ants are attracted to the nectar produced by the blossoms. They neither help nor harm to the plants.
These fragrant beauties were common in colonial gardens and may be thought a bit old-fashioned. Hybridizers have introduced many new varieties over the past few years. These are definitely not your grandmother’s peony. Having said that, my personal favorite remains Festiva Maxima, introduced in 1903.
Many of the flowering plants I knew and loved as a girl are not happy in the heat and humidity of the mid-South. Having moved from my fog-enshrouded hometown 50 years ago, I learned that if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.
Master gardener Ann Bartlett loves the flowers she's with in the ornamental beds surrounding her home.